State and Feds at Odds Over New Rules for Scoring Arizona Schools

Written by Patricia Hawke for Schools K-12

The U.S. Department of Education changed its rules for measuring the progress of public schools during the 2005-2006 school year. The impact was devastating to the Arizona schools, which had more than 600 schools marked as “failed”. That is nearly three times as many schools as last year.

For the first time, the Arizona schools were forced to include AIMS test scores for reading and math of students, who are in their second or third year of learning English. Another change lessened the amount of help a school may give special education students in completing the AIMS test. Additionally, the Arizona schools now are required to expand the number of students tested each year. In the past, they tested students in the third, fifth, eighth and tenth grades. Now, the Arizona schools must test all students in grades three through eight, as well as high school sophomores.

Superintendent Tom Horne is outspoken on the federal mandates, calling them illogical and absurd. He cites that these changes are responsible for nearly 400 additional Arizona schools failing to meet minimum federal progress measures, with about 112 schools failing only because of the requirement to include the scores of students within their first three years of learning English. He vehemently stated that the new federal rules make it impossible for many Arizona schools to succeed. Many Arizona schools students have only arrived from Mexico the year before and cannot be expected to be proficient in English, making it more difficult for them to pass the math and reading portions of the AIMS test.

The only consolation offered by federal officials is for the Arizona schools to offer those students a translation of the AIMS test, making it easier for them to understand. Horne emphasizes the need for more time for these students.  So far, federal officials ignore Horne’s argument by stating that if a group of students are not counted, then they probably are not being taught.

Horne filed a lawsuit against the federal government in July 2006 to stop the inclusion of English as a Second Language student test scores until their fourth year of English language classes. Until the lawsuit is settled, the Arizona schools must continue to include these student test scores.

Horne, as well as many educators and administrators across the state, see the federal mandate as impractical. They say it paints an unfair picture of many reputable Arizona schools. They are concerned that the negative “failed” label and bad publicity will damage individual Arizona schools that have worked hard to maintain their otherwise high achievement levels.

In 2005, there were 54 Arizona schools that failed to meet the minimum progress measure four or more years in a row. In 2006, that figure increased to 66 Arizona schools. This mandate puts more Arizona schools on the road to potentially failing four years in a row, which means mandatory state intervention into those Arizona schools’ daily operations. If these “failed” Arizona schools continue to fail in future years, federal law requires the state to make even bigger changes, which usually starts with the replacement of principals and teachers.

Horne hopes to prevail through a favorable court decision. Otherwise, many Arizona schools soon will experience dramatic consequences.