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AIMS DOESN'T ADD UP: July 3 marked an early Independence Day of sorts for Arizona's high school students, especially for those who are math-impaired.

The state Board of Education voted to liberate incoming sophomores, juniors and seniors from the AIMS math test, the dreaded high-stakes graduation exam that some 89 percent of Arizona's sophomores failed a year ago. They still have to take the test, but they won't have to pass it to graduate. This year's freshmen, the class of 2004, will be the first kids who have to pass the math test to get a diploma.

But the math test these hapless students will be undergoing at the end of their sophomore year will be a heck of lot easier than the one inflicted on students in May of 1999 and 2000.

Arizona's math teachers and professors, like the UA's respected Fred Stevenson, had argued that the math concepts on the old two-day AIMS exam were way out of line with the state's requirement that all students take just two years of high school math. Stevenson's analysis showed that AIMS tested material from such advanced classes as Algebra II, finite math and probability. There was no way that sophomores who had barely gotten through Foundations of Math or Consumer Math could pass it, and only a slim chance that those who had dutifully signed up for Algebra I and Geometry could ace it either.

To its credit, the state Department of Education in June convened a math task force, whose members included Stevenson and some 25 other math pros from around the state and a couple from California universities. This group hammered out a list of math concepts that are typically taught in Algebra I and Geometry, and recommended these--and only these--for the test. The state board OK'd the plan. The new, easier test will be given in its entirety on one day, will test only knowledge of Algebra I and Geometry, and will consist entirely of multiple choice questions, unlike the old test, which also included short written answers. (Note to test-takers: this makes guessing easier!)

But couldn't the disconnect between standards and test--and the resulting fiasco--have been predicted? Apparently not.

"Until you have the test and get the results back and have detailed discussions with people in the field, you don't really know," says ed department spokeswoman Patricia Likens.

The board had already gotten a bit of a jump on the task force by toughening the high school math requirements. No more consumer math, and no more putting off onerous math classes until junior and senior year. Starting this fall, students MUST get Algebra I and Geometry out of the way in the first two years of high school, whether they've taken pre-algebra in eighth grade or not. (Expect lots of foundering freshmen in Algebra I courses across the state this fall.)

College-bound students mortified that their failing AIMS math scores would be appended to their transcripts also got a reprieve from the board. The transcripts of this year's incoming juniors and seniors will be wiped clean of the bad grades. The state previously had ruled that even this fall's seniors, who took AIMS in May 1999 but didn't have to pass it to graduate, would have the scores indelibly marked on their permanent record cards.

This year's incoming sophomores get no such break, however. They get the usual five shots at improving their grade on the test. A failing AIMS math score won't keep them from hearing Pomp and Circumstance on graduation day, but it will stain their transcripts for eternity.

This year's sophomores and juniors, though they're off the hook for the math test, still have to pass the reading and writing sections to graduate. But the board also tinkered with the reading test, eliminating the short written answers in favor of all-multiple choice questions, arguing that the results will come in faster from the testing company.

The state Department of Education, led by schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan, showed a refreshing flexibility in responding to the real-world criticisms of the state's working math teachers. But don't discount more ulterior motives in the shift to a fairer test. The disastrous scores of the first year's test were a political embarrassment for all concerned, Keegan included. Expect the better results of the easier math test of the future to be touted as evidence that the state's tough new standards are working.

And the bureaucrats were also motivated by a fear of lawsuits. Several dozen other states have also imposed a graduation test in recent years, and parents filing suit on behalf of their failing students have drawn on the legal concept of "opportunity to learn." They've argued persuasively that the state has no right to withhold a diploma from Jason or Tiffany if the kid never was taught the material tested. In Arizona, kids required by the state to take two years of math could have been denied a diploma for failing to know material covered in fourth-year math courses. That's a legal no-no. Even Billie Orr, associate state superintendent, pointed this out in a letter to the state board.

"'Opportunity to Learn' was a key issue for the Math Task Force," she wrote. "That is, it is absolutely essential that students have the opportunity to learn the Standards and Concepts for which they will be held accountable on AIMS."

As if to underline the point, the new rules won't be official until the state Attorney General's office makes sure they pass legal muster.


SLIM PICKINGS: So Slim-Fast is coming to Tucson with about 150 jobs. The company made that decision after it was offered a four-year, $7 million property tax break by the City Council. By our calculations, that works out to be almost $12,000 a year per job. But hey, if those workers get paid $9 an hour, it will only take them 33 weeks each year to earn that much money.

Fiscal conservatives who object to this type of economic development bribe forget one thing: Tucson has been doling out these big-business ransom dollars for decades. Look at all the companies located on the property immediately adjacent to Tucson's airport. That land is owned by the City of Tucson; thus, those companies are exempt from paying real property taxes.

Not only that, but those companies aren't even within the city limits, meaning they pay no local sales tax on any merchandise they sell.

The Slim-Fast deal came too late to save the job of Robert Gonzales, the outgoing director of the Greater Tucson Economic Council. Although nobody is commenting on the reasons behind Gonzales' resignation, we hear GTEC's lackluster performance in attracting new companies to town cost him his job earlier this week.

Gonzales is a decent and honorable man who tried to make a difference, but look what he had to sell. Sure, Arizona has some of the advantages of a Third World nation, given that companies can get away with paying crummy wages and can fire workers without cause. But our educational system is, to put it charitably, embarrassing, and that means potential employees struggle with even basic literacy requirements, much less the skill required for high-tech cluster work. It's little wonder that companies aren't going to relocate here unless they're offered a bribe.


DING-A-LING! There we were relaxing at home on a recent evening, when we found our peace shattered by yet another telemarketer. This one was US West, calling to let us know that for a few more dollars each month, we could have a service that would block telemarketers. In other words, if we were willing to shell out more money to the phone company, they wouldn't bother us with these annoying calls. Sheesh--sounds like a protection racket to us. We're so annoyed we've decided to vote no on the big US West initiative on the ballot in November.

At the risk of collapsing the local economy, here's a way to cut down on those telemarketing calls that will only cost you a 33-cent stamp: send your name, home address (including your apartment number), ZIP code and phone number (with area code) to the Telephone Preference Service, c/o Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9014, Famingdale, NY 11735-9014. They'll tell telemarketers to buzz off.

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