Glenn Hamer

Arizona’s current high-stakes educational test, the AIMS test, measures if a student has mastered 10th grade material. Perhaps connected to this fact, 59 percent of Arizona children who graduate from Arizona high schools still must take remedial courses in college.

In the recent recession we learned the hard truth about skills and the workforce. The expectations employers have do not match the skills many workers are equipped with, which means there are jobs for the taking but employers face a consistent skills gap between the labor available and the labor they need. One study suggested that the nation’s unemployment rate would have been reduced by one-third if this disconnect did not exist, meaning potentially millions of Americans gainfully employed instead of being idle. We need our educational system to adapt and evolve to address this lag in the skill set of the work force. As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush put it, “[t]he success of today’s students will determine our nation’s destiny. America’s economic strength and standing in the world economy are directly linked to our ability to equip students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the 21st-century economy.”

Key to achieving our vision is a set of standards that educates students so they are college and career-ready. With that in mind, a team from across the country worked with industry, individual states, superintendents of public instruction and governors to develop a new set of standards called the Common Core. Today we have 46 states in some phase of implementing this set of rigorous standards that make it possible to give students a shot for success in the American workplace or higher education. These standards are guidelines. Schools and teachers still have to adopt curriculum, design lessons, pick reading lists and seek input from their parents and community on how to develop the detail that comes from these guidelines.

The need for improvements and modernization in our schools has been a constant drumbeat in Arizona. There is more school choice in Arizona than probably any other state, with networks of charters flourishing and private schools benefitting from tax credits. We have also made progress in third grade reading, moving students to college level work when ready, teacher performance and offering meaningful and easy-to-understand grading of our schools. Arizona now has some of the best schools and public school systems in the country. Yet our graduation rate still lags behind the national average; there is much work left to be done.

To combat this, many states first adopted standards in the 1990’s. But those standards aren’t rigorous enough. Fear of setting expectations too high led to a series of state standards that aren’t getting the job done, prompting employers to call out states, governors and school boards. For example, in Arizona we’ve been telling students for a decade that they are ready for the real world if they pass AIMS, a test that only proves to students that they have the skills of a 10th grade student. In today’s globalized economy, this just won’t cut it. As former Intel CEO Craig Barrett put it, “[h]aving a set of standards on par with an international bar is important because those who apply for high-paying technology jobs compete with applicants from not only the same state or country, but from a worldwide pool.”

It’s not just industry that’s concerned. Parents want standards and curriculum that challenge their kids to learn and not just memorize, to problem solve and not just guess and to know that when their children put on that high school graduation cap and gown, it symbolizes options for their future and not a dated degree that is a path to nowhere.

The next set of meaningful education reforms includes Common Core, data collection and performance funding. The most important item to tackle right now is the successful implementation of the Common Core standards, which includes getting rid of the outdated AIMS test with an assessment that is better equipped to measure students’ career and college readiness.

The support of HB 2047 will help to attach the right assessment to the new Common Core standards and retire the outdated AIMS. The bill passed the House with a strong bipartisan vote of 50-9 and now needs Senate consideration to move forward.

It’s time to send the AIMS test the way of the Walkman and parachute pants. They might have been trendy items in the schoolyard at some point, but none stood the test of time as kids, their parents and the country continued to evolve.

Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry