Arizona Exit Exam Under Attack

K-12 Testing

Activists seeking to roll back the national high-stakes testing trend might want to keep an eye on Arizona, where opposition to the state’s high school exit exam has generated a series of bills, including separate pieces of legislation from a conservative Republican senator and a Democratic representative.


Previous attempts to impose an Arizona high school exit exam were repeatedly postponed due to public opposition (see Examiner, Spring 2002).


Now, with public opinion apparently tilted slightly in favor of imposing Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test as a graduation requirement, the steadfast support of the state’s schools chief, and the governor’s position unclear, observers may have to wait until next year, when the exit exam requirement takes effect, for legislative debate to become action. This year’s juniors will be the first class to be denied diplomas if they don’t pass the AIMS tests in reading, writing and math. So far, more than half (57%) of all students and nearly all of the disabled students in the class of 2006 (94%) are at risk of not graduating.


Faced with these failure rates, Republican state Senator Thayer Verschoor filed legislation calling for AIMS to be used as a diagnostic tool but not as a graduation requirement. Verschoor argued, “This should not be mandated by big government and a state school board. To me, we are saying that we don’t trust our teachers.”


Democratic Rep. Ted Downing had offered to co-sponsor Vershoor’s bill if the senator agreed to an amendment saying that test scores will be included on student transcripts, thereby allowing the “marketplace” to decide how meaningful they are. When Verschoor declined the amendment, Downing filed a separate bill containing the transcript provision. Other bills would institute a two-tier diploma system or exempt learning disabled students from having to pass AIMS to graduate.


Downing’s bill is supported by Tuscon Education Association President Paul Karlowicz, who said it is not ideal but a good compromise. Arizona Education Association (AEA) President John Wright said that the AEA has long opposed high-stakes testing. He also explained that teachers, many of whom once would have gladly taken a match to any high-stakes test, now voice concerns that if they are being held accountable based on test scores as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law, students must take the tests seriously enough to do well. The AEA has not yet taken a position on either bill.


Soon after an Arizona Republic opinion poll showed 51 percent of those polled in favor of the exit exam, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano said the state should exempt special-education students from the graduation requirement, suggesting that she is not now onboard with the drive to eliminate the requirement for all students.


State schools Superintendent Tom Horne staunchly backs the exit exam, and said he expects to bring the failure rate down to 10 percent.