With the AIMS day of reckoning less than a year away for the Class of 2006, and a history of poor performance on the state’s high-stakes graduation test, high school students suddenly are demonstrating a burst of genius. Or is it just that state education officials have manipulated the test to ensure a small failure rate?
In truth, it’s a bit of both. And in spite of the euphoria by public school officials and the cynicism of the critics, a reasonable response should be a head nod and a smile. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has saved the day in several respects.
First, Horne has done what reasonable critics of AIMS have been suggesting for years: He’s made it more realistic in terms of measuring a benchmark level of academic competence that high school students should master in order to graduate. In our view, this should be roughly equivalent to the threshold for passing the GED exam.
There was compelling evidence that the original academic standards, especially in math, were unrealistically high, even though former Schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan insisted AIMS was intended to reflect only minimum acceptable standards. Keep in mind that the brightest students have a number of other performance benchmarks that they aim for in order to achieve their academic and career goals.
Let's remember that AIMS was intended to be the state’s answer to a growing chorus of complaints from the business and higher-education communities that too many high school graduates were unable to read, write and compute at even rudimentary levels. It was both sad and outrageous. It was proof that a diploma had come to represent seat time rather than academic proficiency.
So state officials went overboard in response to the outrage. Now they've come back to what hopefully is a reasonable middle ground — where schools must make sure students master the basics in order to graduate, and where the benchmark truly represents minimum acceptable standards — not some unrealistically lofty bar that will turn thousands of hard-working young people away from their graduation ceremonies.
From what we’ve seen this past decade, Arizona’s public schools have been scrambling to make the improvements necessary to meet the state standards. Those who maintain this year’s higher pass rate on AIMS is due solely to “dumbing down” the test don’t give educators and students enough credit.
Furthermore, it’s disingenuous at best to push a high-stakes graduation test as essential to ensuring academic rigor, and then scoff at higher scores that surely reflect some increased effort on the part of both educators and students.
Finally, let’s not ignore the positive effect competition has had on reversing the
decades-long erosion of academic expectations in education. Arizona has cultivated the broadest and most dynamic educational marketplace in the nation, and that is helping drive academic excellence. Every family now has a wide range of options, whether their child is academically challenged or gifted, especially talented in a particular area, or at risk of failure due to behavioral issues. Regardless of your child’s aptitude, interests or special needs, there’s most likely a school within driving distance that is right for him or her.
That competition has put some healthy pressure on traditional public schools to better educate what most likely always will be the majority of students.
Rather than write off the most recent AIMS results as due to political manipulation, let’s pose a challenge to the business and higher education communities: Let us know in the next year or so whether high school graduates’ competency has elevated to satisfactory levels. If it has, AIMS will have accomplished what it was intended to accomplish. If not, we’ll all have more work to do.