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Robb: Test should reflect knowledge

Francisco Peña contemplates a math problem at an AIMS workshop at Pueblo High Magnet School.

Francisco Peña contemplates a math problem at an AIMS workshop at Pueblo High Magnet School.

After many years as a political observer and erstwhile practitioner, I usually understand why what I think is sensible policy doesn’t get enacted.

Often, there is some interest group opposed. In our political system, intensity matters. An organized group that cares a lot can usually carry the day against policies whose benefits are diffuse.

Our political system also is set up to make big reforms difficult. Incremental change at the margins is more the norm. And usually, that’s a good thing.

And not at all infrequently, my views are in the minority, and not infrequently a very small minority at that.

Nevertheless, the failure of policy to move in the direction I think sensible about a high school graduation test in Arizona perplexes me. It doesn’t disadvantage any organized interest group. It’s not that big of a reform. And I think most people would agree with me, although I might be wrong about that.

Nevertheless, Arizona’s high school graduation test remains stuck in a place that makes no sense, and reform efforts, to the extent they are gaining traction, move in the wrong direction.

Arizona has a high school graduation test, AIMS, that all students must pass to receive their diploma (ignoring the temporizing fudging mechanisms the Legislature has adopted and extended).

However, the test doesn’t really determine whether a student knows what a high school graduate is expected to know. Instead, it is set at a 10th grade level.

So, Arizona can be relatively confident that its high school graduates know what a sophomore in high school should know. Wouldn’t it make more sense to determine if they know what a high school graduate should know?

I think Arizona should have a high school exit exam that actually tests what high school graduates should know. If passage were made a graduation requirement, however, the failure rate would be, at least at first, politically unacceptably high.

So, I’ve proposed a two-tier diploma: a certificate of achievement, representing passage of the test; and a certificate of completion, representing passage of all other graduation requirements but failure to pass the exit exam.

No one would be denied graduation because of the test. But employers and universities could place appropriately differential value on the two diplomas.

An AIMS Task Force formed by the Legislature recently released its recommendations. It said, much to my surprise, that AIMS should remain a 10th grade test and should remain a graduation requirement. However, it should be supplemented by two “college and career readiness” tests in the freshman and junior years.

Now, that would mean that there would still be no way of knowing whether an Arizona high school graduate actually knows what a high school graduate should know.

The desire for new “college and career readiness” tests issues from two growing fallacies.

First, that all students should graduate high school ready for college. Second, that what is necessary to prepare for college is the same thing as is necessary for jobs that don’t require a college degree.

If college is to be what it should be, and not just the new high school, then it should require cognitive abilities and a keen interest in hard academic work that just isn’t universal. And the math skills that an aspiring plumber or carpenter needs just aren’t the same as for an aspiring physicist or economist.

This is an overreaction to the commendable desire not to prematurely track kids, and particularly to avoid lower expectations for low-income and minority students.

But there are plenty of college readiness tests that already exist, and the entry requirements for Arizona universities are not opaque. Avoiding low-expectations is a matter of exhortation, not new tests.

Arizona does, however, need a high school graduation test that actually tests high school graduate knowledge.

Getting one shouldn’t be this difficult.

Robert Robb, an Arizona Republic columnist, writes about public policy and politics in Arizona. E-mail: robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com

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