Results released by the Arizona Department of Education show students are making progress in reading and math on the state's standardized test. But even so, the 12-year-old exam's days may be numbered.
Even as school districts start to digest this year's numbers, state officials are gearing up to debate whether AIMS will survive in its current form.
Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards has been touted by state schools chief Tom Horne as a good way to hold schools accountable for student achievement. But this summer Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, slipped a little-known provision into the state budget that set up a seven-member task force to find a replacement for AIMS.
Crandall, president of the Mesa Unified School District governing board, envisioned the committee coming up with a replacement exam.
"Are we getting the information we need to determine where we need to improve?" Crandall asked, saying he wants a test that can be used to compare Arizona students to their peers across the country - and across the globe. "AIMS has a place, but it's not the be-all and end-all, and I don't think you'll find anyone who thinks it is."
AIMS tests reading, writing and math in third through eighth grades and 10th grade. This past year, a pilot science test was added for some fourth- and eighth-graders and students taking high school biology. The science portion becomes a regular part of AIMS this year.
Horne called the idea of scrapping AIMS a "nonstarter," pointing to a letter he wrote to the Legislature that recounts the history of standardized tests in Arizona and how every time a test has been removed, the state just has to start over with another one.
Arizona needs to measure student achievement and strives to improve AIMS every year, Horne said.
"This is a very important measure of accountability, and the state demands that," Horne said. "That's why I think the state will not dump the AIMS test."
School testing experts say AIMS does serve a purpose.
"You can argue about the AIMS test, and I'll let the Legislature do that, but there does need to be a measure of state standards. Absent of that, it's really difficult for a school district to have an external measure of state standards," said Ildiko Laczko-Kerr, the Scottsdale Unified School District's testing director.
Caroline Chilton, director of assessment and evaluation in the Gilbert Unified School District, said the AIMS test is the "best" measure school districts have. If the state came up with a different type of test, it would have to go through the same process that created AIMS.
"It would be ridiculous to scrap it," Chilton said. "Without a consistent measure, we don't have the indicators to find out how we're doing, to see which areas we need to focus on."
And one lawmaker questioned where Arizona would be without the test.
"Prior to the AIMS test, people were graduating who couldn't read their own diplomas, and businesses said that wasn't right," said Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa. "People forget that, and, if you want to go back to those days, and say it doesn't matter, just do your seat time and get a diploma - we can go back to those days. But I don't see what that would accomplish."
But Crandall said AIMS still doesn't do enough for accountability.
"It's been 12 years, and no one is happy with it," he said. "It can't be used to compare outside Arizona. And if we keep comparing ourselves against ourselves, that's a dangerous habit to be in."
That's why, he said, changing AIMS or having students take a test like the SAT or ACT would serve two purposes: Get national data to compare and get students to focus on college, not just high school graduation.