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As AIMS test ends, lawmakers differ over what to do next

School testing blockSen. Kelli Ward hopes to give Arizona students a reprieve from tests like AIMS, which for years prevented high school students from graduating without a passing grade.

She has introduced SB1121, which would prohibit school districts and charter schools from administering any standardized tests during the next three school years that are required for students to graduate.

But as dramatic as the measure may sound, there’s a catch: The bill isn’t needed. Students won’t be taking the high-stakes tests anyway.

The class of 2016 — high school students currently in the 10th grade — are the last class who will take the AIMS test. That’s all a part of a plan implemented by the state Board of Education, which proposed legislation in 2013 that eliminated the test.

The bill reflects confusion over high stakes testing that has clouded Arizona education for more than a decade.

Former Sen. Rich Crandall said SB1121 isn’t necessary given the future of testing in Arizona. Crandall, who retired from the Legislature in 2013 to direct the Wyoming Department of Education, was the sponsor of a measure on behalf of the Arizona Board of Education last year that abolished AIMS, as well as effectively ended the requirement that students pass a high stakes test to graduate.

Christine Thompson, the board’s executive director, said officials are in the process of selecting among several new tests, none of which will be high stakes or a graduation requirement.

Still, Ward and others aren’t convinced.  She and some local school officials have a different understanding of what Arizona’s next high school assessment will be.

Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said her legislation was driven by her constituents in Mohave County, where some school officials worry that tests such as one being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Career Standards — better known as PARCC — are high stakes in nature.

Furthermore, Ward worries that more students might fail to meet the graduation requirement if a new high stakes assessment is implemented in the 2014-15 school year.

School officials in Mohave County “feel there’s been so many changes in education over such a short period of time that if we can just take a little bit of pressure off with the high stakes test, that would give a relief valve to the whole education field,” Ward said.

Getting rid of AIMS

That flurry of changes has sparked confusion over the future of assessing Arizona high school students — a misunderstanding that spans from local districts all the way to the Capitol.

Some legislators were unsure of what Crandall’s measure, pushed forward as an amendment approved in the Senate’s Committee of the Whole, accomplished.

Crandall successfully advanced the measure as a floor amendment after it failed in the Senate Education Committee in opposition to Common Core.

Even Crandall acknowledged that some lawmakers probably didn’t realize what they were voting for.  A measure that was defeated in committee passed unanimously on the Senate floor with few changes.

Some lawmakers said the amendment simply abolished AIMS, while others agreed that it eliminated a high stakes test requirement entirely.

Ward is among those who interpreted Crandall’s measure as simply a repeal of AIMS. She wants to ensure that the next test Arizona students take won’t be a graduation requirement, she said. Her bill would establish a three-year moratorium on high stakes testing, from the 2014-15 school year until the 2016-17 year.

“Basically the kids would need to pass their classes, and then they could graduate,” Ward said.

She has specific concerns with at least one test the Board of Education is considering implementing in the fall: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test.

“I don’t think the PARRC test is ready for prime time yet. I don’t think there’s evidence behind it that shows what kind of outcomes we expect to get… We also don’t know how much it’s going to cost,” Ward said. “I wouldn’t take that completely off the table, but make sure it’s something that we actually want to buy before we buy it.”

But she said her concerns with high stakes testing as a graduation requirement would extend to any assessment Arizona might consider as the successor to AIMS.

That’s a sentiment echoed by school leaders in Ward’s district, as well as some of her Senate colleagues.

At a meeting of Mohave County school administrators in November, county superintendent Michael File said most administrators assume PARCC will be the next test used in Arizona high schools — and that officials understand PARCC to be a high stakes test.

“The consensus was that we’re moving forward on (PARCC), and it has to be a high stakes test that’s computer based, and we don’t even have the capability of doing that at this time,” File said.

File counts himself among those who think students will be just fine with taking a test that will determine if they graduate or not.

“I have many friends and classmates from the 1979 graduating class that have been successful,” File said. “We didn’t have a high stakes test then.”

Senate President Andy Biggs didn’t have to take a test as a graduation requirement when he finished high school either.

“How’d I turn out?” the Gilbert Republican quipped.

No more high stakes tests

The concerns of Ward and some local school officials are unfounded, however, according to officials with the Board of Education.

If chosen from among the roughly seven tests vying to be the next high school assessment in Arizona, PARCC won’t be a high stakes test, according to Thompson, the state board’s executive director. And neither would any of the other tests the Board of Education is considering adopting.

Instead, future tests would be given as end-of-course exams in the 9th, 10th and 11th grades in required math and English courses. The test results would be incorporated as a portion of the student’s grade in those courses.

“So for example, if you’re taking freshman English, at the end of the year you’d be required to take the statewide assessment for that English course,” Thompson said. “Once you do that it will become like a final, it will become part of your grade, it will not be your whole grade, but the board hasn’t determined what percentage of the grade at a minimum they’re going to require that schools use.”

Essentially, a student could fail the class and pass the test — or conversely, fail the test but pass the class and still move on to the next grade, Thompson said.

Passing the test as a graduation requirement is a thing of the past, Thompson said.

That’s a relief to some lawmakers who philosophically disagree with requiring students take an end-all, be-all test to graduate.

Sen. Ed Ableser, a Tempe Democrat who signed on as a cosponsor to Ward’s bill, said, “The concept of high-stakes testing to high school students is completely unfounded and has never been a useful tool in engaging, one, the knowledge that are students obtain, and two, it is arbitrary factor that separates students along the lines of the ability to take a test and not the ability to understand and retain knowledge.”

Blaming the Legislature

But there may still be merit to Ward’s moratorium, given that the Legislature is always free to change its collective mind on what high school testing requirements should entail.

Crandall’s bill also gave the Board of Education the authority to choose and implement the next high school assessment, which will be designed to test students on the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards, more commonly referred to as Common Core.

That doesn’t mean lawmakers couldn’t go back and rewrite state laws and make a test such as PARCC high stakes in the future, Crandall said.

It’s not hard to imagine given how some lawmakers, such as Biggs, are uneasy with the Board of Education’s broad new authority to choose and implement the next assessment.

Whatever test is chosen, the board will likely argue that the Legislature is mandated to fund it, even if it’s more expensive than lawmakers like, Biggs said.

And any issues with the test will be blamed on the Legislature, not the board, he said.

“I have to explain to them, you guys aren’t even elected to the state board. We’re elected,” Biggs said. “And if the constituency doesn’t like what they do, we hear about it. It’s not those guys. So that’s part of the frustration.”

The Board of Education is doing its part to ensure a smooth transition to a new test, as officials are preparing legislation that would phase in the test scores as a part of math and English grades over several years.

And Crandall said it would be idiotic to make a brand new test a high stakes test.

“You don’t want to have a high stakes exam the first year you take it,” Crandall said. “No one knows how scores are going to work out the first time you take this high level exam.”

Other lawmakers, such as Senate Minority Leader Anna Tovar, are considering introducing other measures to allow for more district-driven testing options. And moving forward, the Phoenix Democrat said it’d help to better educate local officials on the direction testing is headed.

“I think there needs to be probably a clearer clarification with the Department of Education to all school districts of what is current law,” Tovar said.

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