January 25, 2006 - Grant Gilles doesn't have to worry about passing the AIMS test before he graduates in May from Catalina Foothills High School; he has already received exceeding marks in all three tested areas.

However, 19,500 Arizona students have yet to pass the writing, reading and mathematics portion of Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, said Doug Nick, interim press secretary for the Arizona Department of Education.

This year for the first time, students must pass all three portions of the AIMS test before they can receive a high school diploma. That leaves nearly 20,000 students throughout the state in limbo as to whether or not they will be walking on graduation day with their senior class.

The fall 2005 AIMS test scores were released in late December by the Department of Education. Of 62,900 high school students enrolled in Arizona, 47,200 have passed the math portion of the exam, 50,388 have passed the reading section and 51,032 have successfully passed the writing portion.

Beginning Feb. 28 and March 1, the reading and writing portions of the exam will be given again, allowing students to retake the test in hopes of passing, Nick said.

The spring 2006 testing will be the fifth opportunity students have had in high school to pass the test.

The AIMS test is required by the state for all students. In high school, students are given the chance to take AIMS for the first time in 10th grade, then again in the two years that follow, in the fall and spring semesters. Students can also opt to retake portions of the exam in hopes of increasing their scores.

Students are ranked using performance levels. After the exam is administered, students and their high school guidance counselors are alerted to the ranking.

Rankings are: exceeds the standards; meets the standards; approaches the standards; or falls far bellow the standards.

If the student does not meet or exceed the standards on any portion of the test, a retest must be administered.

Here in the Northwest and Foothills, most seniors have already met the requirements to graduate with a diploma.

At Catalina Foothills High School, 97 percent of sophomores tested for AIMS passed all three portions last year, said Jay Christopher, guidance counselor.

Four of the 444 seniors of the class of 2006 have not passed the AIMS exam and are in jeopardy of not graduating with the rest of their class, Christopher said.

"But, they have one more chance," he said.

The students that are not meeting the AIMS standards are students that more than likely would not graduate on time, Christopher said. The students have not met the required requirements by the school in order to receive a diploma, he said.

Grant Gilles, senior class president, said most students at the high school aren't concerned about AIMS - to them it is just another test.

"It's a very small issue," he said. "The standards are fairly reasonable."

Gilles, who knows nearly every member of the senior class, said he didn't know of one student who was in jeopardy of not passing. But he does know of many friends who want to take the exam a second time to increase their scores.

If a student exceeds the standards on the AIMS test, they can qualify for a tuition waiver at one of the three Arizona Universities.

That is something that motivates many students at CFHS, Gilles said.

For the students that didn't pass all portions of the AIMS on the first try, Gilles is confident the school offers enough resources to get the student to the required standards.

"There are a lot of checks in place to make sure that students (who) want to pass, do," he said. "There really are a lot of choices."

Schools are in a predicament when it comes to ensuring that all students pass the AIMS, said Terry Downey, assistant superintendent of CFSD.

Little to no additional funding is given to the districts to implement after-school tutoring, extra tutorial classes or additional help. But schools are required to have all of their students meet or exceed the standards set up by the state.

Last year, CFSD received $25,380 in state funding to provide students tutoring before school, after school and on weekends, Downey said. This year no additional money was received, which causes the district to appropriate funds from other areas, she said.

"It would be nice if there was a separate pot of dollars," she said. "But, it is essential for our kids to pass this test."

To ensure students pass the AIMS test, the district, like almost all the districts in the state, have organized additional classes, as well as review sessions, after school help and tutoring.

Students can apply for tutoring, which will be funded by the state, through the State Tutoring Program. The student must contact the school's principal and he or she must ask for the tutoring. The program is voluntary for schools and parents, according to Board of Education's Web site.

Teachers from the district provide the tutoring and have a specific contract with the board of education.

Each high school senior in the state is eligible for up to 90 hours of tutoring; each junior can receive up to 75 hours. Tutoring begins in January and ends April 28.

"The key will be to do everything possible to encourage those who have not yet passed to take advantage of free tutoring," said Tom Horne, state education superintendent, in a Dec. 20 press release. "Ninety percent of those who took tutoring last year either reached proficiency or moved from 'falls far below' to 'approaches.' This proves that the tutoring works."

In addition to tutoring, CFHS students are offered week-long review sessions for AIMS, said Principal Wagner Van Vlack.

During the review session, students can brush up on skills they may be rusty at and get fine-tuned for the exam, he said.

"It's just for kids (who) think they need it," Christopher said.

The school also offers tutorial classes that provide additional help in English and math, he said.

Students are placed in the tutorial classes based on their past AIMS scores administered in eighth grade, he said.

Kim O'Hagen teaches one of the English tutorial classes, the reading and writing workshop. During her regularly scheduled class, students use materials provided by the state's Web site and spend time reviewing testing materials.

Her class, of about 15 students, focuses on writing timed essays, something students are forced to deal with during the AIMS test.

"We've been working more with timed writing, especially with the sophomores," she said. "AIMS isn't timed, but knowing you have a deadline, and to pace yourself," is very important, she said.

In order for a student to drop the tutorial class, which also is offered at CFHS in math, students must be passing all other math or English courses and get permission from their counselors and parents, Hagen said.

And as for O'Hagen's students feeling the pressure to pass the exam, she said, it is there, but it doesn't rule their young lives.

"It's high stakes, but they seem to be really prepared for it," she said. "When we go over review questions they seem to be really comfortable with most of it."

Senior Molly Siegel didn't pay that much attention to the AIMS test. She said she thought that it was just another test that high school students are required to take.

"It's not something that I paid huge attention to," she said. "We're probably going a little bit overboard, students are tested so much."

Siegel exceeded on all areas of the AIMS.

In the Marana Unified School District, results have not been completed as to the number of students who have yet to pass the AIMS test, said Jan Truitt, assistant superintendent.

Like the Foothills, MUSD offers tutorials and tutoring for students in jeopardy of not passing the AIMS.

She does admit that the extra classes and tutoring are putting a strain on resources.

"It comes right out of our regular budget," she said. "We put these classes right in our schedule. They become basically another class that we offer."

In addition to the extra tutorial classes, a large amount of time and resources are spent on tracking student's progress and results on the tests, she said.

The district has even thought about hiring an academic officer, she said. The officer's full time job would be to track students and their AIMS results and needs, she said.

But until that is on the district's agenda, they will have to deal with the resources it has, she said.

"It's a lot of work," she said, for students and for the administration.

Some administrators question whether or not all the work is necessary. While most won't come out and say the AIMS test shouldn't exist, others are quick to add that it may not count as highly as some think, Christopher said.

For example, students who do not pass the AIMS test can still be accepted into any of the three Arizona universities, said Robyn Stanley, deputy director of the University of Arizona admissions office.

"We do not look at AIMS results as a standard or even a factor of admissions," she said.

The guidelines for admissions are based on standards established by the Arizona Board of Regents, she said.

"The Arizona Board of Regents has not addresses AIMS as a factor," she said. "They don't even mention AIMS."

Each year, about 8,500 students apply to the UA as undergraduates from high schools in Arizona. About 50 percent of those who apply enroll, she said.

And AIMS results have nothing to do with dolling out the acceptance letters, she said.

In the Amphitheater Public Schools District, six seniors at Ironwood Ridge High School still need to pass the AIMS test, and three students at Canyon del Oro High School, said Patrick Nelson, assistant superintendent. The numbers do not include special education students or students enrolled at the district's alternative school.

To provide extra help to students looking to pass the AIMS test, the Department of Education launched an AIMS Web site, www.azaims.gov. At the site, students, parents and teachers can review old tests, receive information regarding tutoring and review study guides

An AIMS hot line also was launched recently, 1-866-688-AIMS.

A reprieve to students needing to pass the AIMS test to graduate can be granted by the state, using an AIMS augmentation.

Students who fail to achieve a passing score on their AIMS test during the 2005, 2006 or 2007 school years could be eligible for the augmentation. With the augmentation, students can graduate if they meet the alternative graduation requirements, if: they have completed with a passing grade all coursework and credits established by the high school; have taken the AIMS test every time it was offered after Aug. 12, 2005; and have participated in an academic remediation program in the areas in which they failed to receive a passing score.

For a complete list of rules regarding the augmentation, visit the state's Department of Education Web site.

Erin Schmidt covers Catalina Foothills and schools. She can be reached at 797-4384 ext 125 or eschmidt@explorernews.com.

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