Superintendents, charter school operators and others in the East Valley say they have a solution to prevent the "train wreck" that some see coming in 2006 when Arizona implements its highstakes graduation test.
They say the state should offer tiered diplomas — one type for students who pass Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards test and another type for students who don’t.
The plan goes one step beyond an earlier proposal circulated among East Valley educators that would award certificates of attendance to students in the class of 2006 who fail AIMS.
Students with attendance certificates would not technically be high school graduates and might be blocked from careers in nursing, the military, law enforcement, firefighting and other industries that require diplomas.
Under a tiered diploma system, students who failed AIMS would be eligible for diplomas if they passed all their classes, maintained a prescribed attendance rate and met other conditions.
"There are likely those critics who will see this as a dilution to the accountability efforts, but I contend that it is just the opposite," said Mesa Unified School District Superintendent Debra Duvall.
She said the state has already lowered AIMS grading standards in response to the test’s high failure rate — and still 67 percent of Arizona students in the class of 2006 failed at least one portion of the sophomore-level test on their first try.
If the state continued to soften the test until nearly all students could pass, she said the state would be left with a multimillion-dollar program that would give parents, employers and colleges little information about what students know.
"We do not want the standards to go away," Duvall said. "We do not want AIMS to go away. But a single high-stakes diploma will not distinguish among the achievements of our students."
State Sen. Slade Mead, RAhwatukee Foothills, said he supports a tiered diploma system as a way to avoid a looming crisis in 2006.
"This is an absolute train wreck heading right toward us," he said.
Gov. Janet Napolitano, who opposes high-stakes testing, called on the state Board of Education in August to address the high failure rate on AIMS. Napolitano has said that something needs to be done before 2006, but she declined last week to declare a position on tiered diplomas.
Her spokeswoman, Jeanine L’Ecuyer, said a premature position by the governor on any possible AIMS action might have a chilling effect on the brainstorming sessions that the state board is conducting.
"She wants people to kick the ideas around and work out possible solutions," L’Ecuyer said.
The tiered diploma idea has received support from some unlikely sources, including the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix — a conservative think tank that supports parental choice and school accountability.
In 2001 when the topic of tiered diplomas surfaced, the Goldwater Institute said Arizona needed a single test that everybody must pass to get a diploma.
But Vicki Murray, education analyst at the Goldwater Institute, said last week that tiered diplomas might remove the pressure on policy-makers to continue tinkering with cutoff scores and softening test questions until 90 percent of students can pass.
"I think a tiered diploma in the right situation could be a very good thing," Murray said. "We have a test that doesn’t give real information, so now we have a diploma that doesn’t give real information."
However, Murray said a second-tier diploma would be a poor consolation to parents who have limited options available when their children do poorly on AIMS. She said the best solution for Arizona would be school vouchers and other measures designed to increase parental choice.
Charter school operators in the East Valley gave mixed views on tiered diplomas.
Tempe Preparatory Academy director Daniel Scoggin said a tiered diploma system might encourage students to set their sights too low.
"Students would see that (second-tier) diploma as not too different from a standard diploma," Scoggin said. "But not getting a diploma is very different from getting a diploma."
Sun Valley High School principal Joe Procopio, who caters to at-risk students at his Mesa charter school, said he would welcome tiered diplomas.
"I think it’s a tremendous idea," he said. "We’ve got to do something to keep these kids coming to school."
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne supports the concept of tiered diplomas — but with a key difference to the plan coming out of the East Valley. He said students who meet state standards on AIMS should receive a standard diploma, and students who exceed the standards should receive a higher diploma. Under his plan, students who failed AIMS would not receive any diploma.
Horne has asked the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to issue a formal opinion on whether the state Board of Education would have authority to implement a tiered diploma system — or if such a change would require legislative action.
John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said he believes implementing such a plan would fall within the authority of the state board.
"I think the Board of Education has authority to define a tiered system, and we have advocated something along those lines since a high-stakes test was introduced," he said.
Under the proposal of Mesa Unified School District Superintendent Debra Duvall, students who pass or exceed standards on AIMS would receive advanced high school diplomas. Students who fail AIMS would receive a standard diploma if they do all of the following:
• Earn the prescribed number of course credits.
• Attain a prescribed attendance rate.
• Take AIMS at each opportunity.
• Participate in tutoring and AIMS intervention opportunities offered at each school.
Public AIMS discussion
What: State Board of Education will conduct an AIMS study session
When: 9 a.m. Nov. 15
Where: Arizona Department of Education, fourth floor, 1535 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix
Information: (602) 542-5057