The days for Arizona's AIMS test may be numbered.
In a little-noticed provision slipped into the budget bill that was passed in the early morning during the final hours of the legislative session, a task force was created to examine the merits of the state's high school exit test and explore alternatives.
The seven-member task force, which will include a principal, a finance officer and a curriculum expert, also will examine whether college-placement exams might be merged with existing AIMS questions as a graduation test, similar to a model used in Michigan, and will look at whether the test should even be a high-stakes test at all.
To make sure Arizona doesn't trot too far down the AIMS path, lawmakers also limited any contracts with the test publisher to one year.
The amendment was supported by an unlikely coalition of conservatives, who fear the test has been "dumbed down" so much that it's an irrelevant measurement of student skills, and moderate-leaning members who worry that the test has bled some of the creativity and innovation from the classroom.
"I think doing away with AIMS is very likely going to be part of the discussion," said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, which represents teachers. Wright said he found out about the amendment too late to weigh in on it but would have supported it in concept.
"I think there's always value in examining current practice and seeing how to improve our practice, so we have an opportunity in front of us," Wright said.
Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards test, which students are required to pass in order to graduate, generally has been problematic, he said, because it has limited utility in helping teachers refine their instructional practices since results for the spring tests come out in the fall.
On the other end of the spectrum, The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, is also supporting doing away with the existing testing system.
"I think the Legislature has taken the right approach in saying we need to start over," said Matthew Ladner, vice president for research and a longtime critic of how the state tests are administered and measured.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act sets up a perverse system that gives incentives for states to ratchet down test expectations to meet mandatory benchmarks, Ladner said. Arizona, he maintains, has responded by reducing the passing thresholds so that more students could pass. "Presto chango, we go from being in deep trouble to well, it's not so bad," Ladner said.
Taxpayers can't know, then, how schools are performing, and parents can't readily make educated choices about where to send their kids to school, he said.
"The test scores have gotten to be a bit of a farce," Ladner said. "I think what the Legislature has done is recognize the need for a credible system of testing in the state.
"It doesn't matter if you're a Republican or a Libertarian or a vegetarian; we all want to see kids succeed, and I applaud the Legislature for the step they've taken," he said.
Despite the initial agreement, there's going to be plenty to argue about. Wright, for example, is leery of the provision to study making college-entrance exams a graduation prerequisite, saying those tests do not match Arizona standards and may test students on things they've never seen in a state classroom.
Ladner, meanwhile, said policymakers can debate the merits of a high-stakes graduation exam but suggested Arizona should follow the lead of other states such as Florida and instead put the emphasis on the lower grades. If students were tested in third grade, he said, and those who couldn't read were retained, it would help dent the dropout rate.
"What we know about literacy is that absent any heroic intervention that schools rarely provide, kids who can't read fall further and further behind, and by late middle school they can't read the textbooks in front of them," he said. "So by putting the emphasis on a test in the 10th grade, we're addressing the problem at the back end instead of at the front end."
At any rate, the potential overhaul isn't sitting well with Republican state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who issued a letter to lawmakers late last week defending the test and saying he was intentionally excluded from "secret" discussions because backers of the amendment feared he would obstruct its passage.
Horne said Arizona was at the end of its current five-year contract and was prepared to send out bids for another five years. The contract cap will make the test inordinately expensive, he maintained.
"Making a policy decision like this, which ties the Board's hands to a one-year contract and thereby makes Arizona's cost skyrocket, at 2 a.m. so that legislators can be kept ignorant of any input from the Department of Education, is not good public policy making," he wrote to lawmakers.
Horne denied that the test was dumbed down, noting that 3,000 students last year had the credits to graduate but couldn't pass the AIMS test after five tries. Those students were ultimately allowed to graduate under a bill that permitted students to use the grades they received in classes to supplement their AIMS scores. "You can't have it both ways," he wrote.
Rep. Pete Hershberger, a Tucson Republican, supported the move. Teachers are teaching to the test, and students are being drilled to memorize factoids instead of applying deeper learning, he said.
Hershberger's bills in the past to look at scrapping AIMS for a different model never got a hearing.
The momentum has clearly shifted.
"I think it's just a higher-profile issue because now we're seeing that kids are not graduating. We had to fight so hard with augmentation that it's starting to sink in that AIMS is a reality and not just hypothetical. There's opposition from the left and the right to the AIMS test now."
The task force is required to make its recommendations to the governor and Legislature by June 2009.