Thousands of East Valley high school seniors who will receive their diplomas in the coming days have grown up in the age of public school accountability.
They were born in the decade that saw the release of the government’s “A Nation at Risk” report that ignited a firestorm of fear that America’s schools were churning out millions of mediocre minds.
They are the first Arizona students required to pass a high-stakes exam to graduate.
Ask a room full of educators, parents and students whether the class of 2006 is better for the reforms launched at both the state and federal level — and you’ll probably be in for a long and passionate debate.
But sift out the emotions and look for the common threads. One you likely will find is that the reforms have dramatically reshaped the high school education experience in ways that we are only beginning to understand. For Robert Donofrio, director of the office of the vice president of University/School Initiatives at Arizona State University, that shift means schools are paying more attention to the individual child.
For Scottsdale parent Suanne Rudley, teachers are more focused on standards — and that’s a good thing.
It will undoubtedly take a while for Jessica Aguilar, a graduating senior at Mesa’s Dobson High School, to determine whether she received a better education than those who preceded her. But she’s walked the walk and knows this much:
“The people who were seniors last year, their high school experience was a lot different from mine. I know that for a fact.”
One key difference, according to Donofrio, is that the accountability era has forced school officials to monitor the progress of every child, particularly since the 2002 passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
No Child Left Behind requires public schools to ensure that all students, regardless of ethnicity, income, gender or disability, meet academic standards as measured by state exams.
“We’ve really started to look at student populations individually. I think that’s really very positive,” Donofrio said. “And I do think we’re beginning to close the gap, though certainly not as quickly as any of us would like to see.”
After a decade of political and legal delays, the class of 2006 became the first required to pass Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
Despite the consensus that education needed to be beefed up, AIMS has had a tumultuous history that often left students and parents wondering how seriously they should take it. The original exam was much more rigorous and included, for example, trigonometry. But over the past eight years, standards, cut scores and the test itself changed several times.
More than once, the year for AIMS to become a graduation requirement was pushed back — a battle that continued right up to Monday’s rejection of a request for a temporary restraining order from attorneys who filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of seniors who haven’t yet passed all three sections of the test.
Another attempt this spring to delay the AIMS graduation requirement, in this case for English language learners, failed as well.
As the legal wrangling suggests, getting to the point of having a required exit exam hasn’t been easy.
Aguilar said the fact that her class was the first required to pass AIMS just compounded the test anxiety she and her classmates were getting from different directions as well.
“We weren’t supposed to be the first class to have to pass AIMS, but they just kept pushing it back and pushing it back,” she said. “So now we’re the first class with the new AIMS requirement as well as the new writing portion of the SATs, where we have to write something about a topic you may not be familiar with.”
Despite the anxiety, this year’s seniors acquitted themselves, with approximately 94 percent passing AIMS and earning enough credits to graduate.
Aguilar worries that being taught “to the test” has limited what she and her peers have received from their education. But not everyone who’s grown up in this climate has the same concerns.
Max Kanter, 18, a Desert Mountain High School senior from Scottsdale, is sick of all the testing he’s undergone, and considers most of the standardized tests he’s taken “ridiculously superfluous” — but not AIMS.
His beef is with the SAT and other college entrance exams, which he feels both admissions officials and students pay way too much attention to, at the expense of classroom grades and personal qualities.
But Kanter, who passed all three sections of AIMS on the first try, thinks officials are more than justified in asking students to pass the test.
“There need to be expectations met for students to graduate from high school. I don’t think graduating high school should be a walk in the park,” he said.
Many experts and parents do applaud this move toward a more standards-based curriculum, which makes it easier for them to determine whether a student’s schooling is on the right track.
Rudley, who has one daughter at Desert Mountain and another at Scottsdale’s Ingleside Middle School, said it appears to her that middleschool teachers have become more focused on the standards in just the two-year span between her girls.
“My older daughter had a very inspiring social studies teacher who liked to talk about world politics and all kinds of interesting things, but he didn’t cover the curriculum,” she said. “So she took seventh-grade social studies and she learned some things, but she didn’t learn what she was supposed to learn.”
Whatever the outcome of upcoming legal battles, it’s clear AIMS is affecting the public school atmosphere.
Veronica Leiper, who has a son graduating from Desert Mountain and is now a teacher at Scottsdale’s Mountainside Middle School said she thinks the system has failed if a high school senior is not able to pass AIMS.
Leiper said teachers of younger children are bending over backward to impress upon students just how important AIMS is.
“We say ‘This is a test you have to pass in order to graduate,’ and we’re telling them this in seventh grade,” she said.