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Minorities fail AIMS at high rate

Some backers talking change

By Pat Kossan and Daniel González
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 2, 2000

Up to 80 percent of Arizona's minority high school juniors are at risk of not graduating in 2002 because they have not yet passed the AIMS test, leaving some of the exam's staunchest supporters talking about change.

Wednesday, the state released an analysis of spring 2000 AIMS scores broken down by ethnicity and race. The numbers show little overall progress from last year and indicate that far fewer African-American, Hispanic and American Indian students passed the test than their Asian and White peers.

Educators, parents and activists blame poverty, low expectations, needy schools and test bias for much of the gap. And they say the test itself may be unrealistic, as about 70 percent of today's juniors overall failed writing and 30 percent failed reading. Juniors must pass those two sections to graduate in 2002. Math, which 83 percent of this year's juniors failed overall, becomes a requirement in 2004.

Pam Jones broke into tears while trying to explain why so many of her Murphy Elementary students, who are 90 percent Hispanic, failed Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards. Jones, Murphy's curriculum director, came to the southwest Phoenix district as a teacher 30 years ago with all the answers, but now has far more questions, she said.

It's not the AIMS test Jones is upset with. It's a system, she said, that spends millions on a test but fails to fund the needs of children who come to school from homes without books, newspapers or telephones. Who come to school not knowing how to hold a pencil, she said, but who still are expected to equal their Scottsdale counterparts despite crowded classes with few supplies.

"Somebody has to believe public education works," Jones said, "and these kids are worth it."

Students can retake AIMS until graduation, and many could boost their scores enough to pass. But given the huge failure rate, experts aren't optimistic. Thousands won't improve fast enough, they fear. And the state can't leave that many kids without diplomas.

"Of course not," said Billie Orr, associate superintendent of the state Department of Education. "We can't walk away from (AIMS), but we also have to be realistic."

Orr said she expects the state Board of Education to make changes to ensure large groups of kids aren't left behind, but can't say exactly what those changes may be. They could include moving back the year seniors must pass the test to graduate, Orr said, or reducing, and gradually increasing, the score seniors need to pass.

Then there's the suggestion made by Rep. Dan Schottel, House Education Committee chairman, that the test should be graded on a curve for a few years. That would mean the passage rate would be set by the average student score, not a preset number. Orr said a curve is unacceptable; but Schottel, a Tucson Republican, said he will consider the idea during his legislative hearing on AIMS, which continues Nov. 28.

"We may have to use somewhat of a bell curve in scoring the test for another five or six years," Schottel said, "until we're getting the performance out of the children and the performance out of the schools."

Many lawmakers have predicted that AIMS will be changed, delayed or scrapped next legislative session. Schottel's committee is expected to come up with recommendations by Dec. 18.

Ann Hart is the dean of students at North High School and the parent of two students, one in grade school, the other a high-schooler.

"I think the AIMS test is a misguided instrument that does not accurately assess the academic skills of most children, particularly African-American and Latino students," Hart said. "Until the quality of teaching is improved and more resources become available in schools, our minority students, particularly African-American and Latinos, will continue to be put at a disadvantage."

Edmundo Hidalgo, the chief operating officer of Chicanos Por La Causa, a Phoenix-based human services agency, said the dismal test results underscore why AIMS should be scrapped.

He placed part of the blame on a cultural bias inherent in standardized testing that hurts Latino students, as well as a failure by the state's public education system to adequately educate Latinos. But he refused to let the Latino community itself off the hook.

"If you talk to any Latino parent, they will tell you they value education," Hidalgo said. "But we as a community are not doing a good enough job of emphasizing the importance of a quality education. We are the ones who are going to have to take accountability."

But the overall problem may rest with the test itself, Arizona State University education Professor Gene Glass said. He said the passing score is set unrealistically high. He pointed out that 20 states require a test to graduate and that most have a failure rate of to 1 to 3 percent. In Arizona, about 84 percent of Hispanic students scheduled to graduate in 2002 failed the AIMS writing test, while 79 percent of African-American students, 93 percent of American Indian students and 56 percent of White students failed.

"The AIMS test is so inappropriate in its difficulty," Glass said, "that it makes everyone look bad."

Reach the reporters at pat.kossan@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8960.