PHOENIX -- State education officials awarded a $19 million contract Monday for a new set of standardized tests that students will start taking this spring.
Jennifer Johnson, the deputy state school superintendent, acknowledged the test to be developed by the American Institutes for Research will not be directly comparable with Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards that it will replace. In fact, it will be so different from AIMS that the state Board of Education is already proposing a "hold harmless' period' so that schools and students won't be judged if their grades suddenly drop sharply that first year.
But Johnson said the tests will be based on the same Common Core standards the state board adopted -- and schools have been implementing -- for the last four years despite the controversy that surrounds them.
There has been political debate over the standards, even after Gov. Jan Brewer and schools chief John Huppenthal renamed them as Arizona's College and Career Ready Standards. And there are candidates for statewide office who have vowed to scrap those standards.
But Christine Thompson, executive director of the state Board of Education, said the need for a new test does not go away no matter what. Anyway, she said, it would be wrong to assume there will be a major change regardless of the results of today's election.
"I don't believe it's clear the standards will be crafted from scratch,' Thompson said. She said that standards are constantly reviewed and modified by the board all the time.
And there's one other factor: While the state superintendent of public instruction is a member of the Board of Education, that person is just one member. And it is the full board that gets to make the decision.
She pointed out that state law requires accountability standards.
"It's been a cornerstone of our education system that we implement those standards and we measure those standards,' she said. "I think that parents should have faith that the Board of Education is committed to not only the standards but this new assessment.'
Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, said he was glad the board will not try to compare AIMS scores with what has been dubbed Arizona's Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching, or AzMERIT.
"You're dealing with the new assessment has not even been scaled yet,' he said, saying Arizona is "flying blind.'
But he also noted that that state officials insisted that the standards to be tested would be both Arizona-specific and yet comparable to how students and schools are doing in other states -- and potentially other countries.
Morrill said that makes no sense. And he is concerned because the AzMERIT scores will be used to judge how well not just students but also teachers are doing.
Johnson, however, said these goals are not necessarily incompatible.
She said the tests will have questions designed to see if students here are meeting the Arizona-specific standards. But Johnson said the testing firm also will include questions here that it is also asking of students in other states.
AzMERIT tests will be required for English language arts and math in grades 3 through 8. That is similar to existing AIMS tests.
The big difference will be in high school.
AIMS is now offered in 10th grade for reading, writing and math.
Students need to pass all three parts to get a diploma. And if they don't pass the first time, there are multiple opportunities to take any part again.
The new system will offer tests at the end of six required high school courses: English language and literacy for 9th, 10th and 11th grades, along with Algebra 1, Algebra 2 and Geometry.
But the big difference is that students can fail that test without it affecting their ability to graduate.
The current crop of juniors and seniors, however, who started taking AIMS in their sophomore year still have to pass all three areas to get that diploma.
Thompson said despite Monday's awarding of the bid, there are "some details' that still need to be worked out before a contract is signed.
One of those details is the cost.
She said that $19 million figure is based on half of students taking the test online and half using pencil and paper. But Thompson said if more than half the schools lack the capability to do online tests, that figure could change.
The change comes more than a decade after Arizona first implemented AIMS in the spring of 1999. But beset by problems, state officials postponed using it as a graduation requirement until 2006.
Even then, so many students failed that lawmakers implemented a "bonus points' system for several years, allowing students to use their good grades to supplement their AIMS scores.
Lawmakers formally approved scrapping AIMS last year. Brewer, who signed the measure, said it made no sense to continue using that test since it was not aligned with the new Common Core standards.
Morrill said it will be important for lawmakers to ensure schools have the resources they need to make sure students are learning what they need to pass the new test.
He acknowledged that teachers have been working for four years now to implement the new standards and be ready for the tests. But he said teachers need to be trained to help students pass the test.
Some of that, said Morrill, is strictly technology.
For example, he said it's one thing to teach a student to use a protractor to calculate angles. That's a hands-on experience.
He said it's completely different to teach a student to grab the protractor icon on a computer screen and drag it down to make calculations on something on a screen.