JUNEAU -- High school students may want to keep a close eye on the Legislature this year as lawmakers debate a question affecting thousands of them -- whether to put off the date when they must pass a test to get a high school diploma.
Current law requires students graduating in 2002 to pass the test. When that class made its first attempt at the test last year as sophomores, two-thirds failed the math section, about half failed in writing and about a quarter failed in reading.
In some districts the results were even more dismal. In four rural districts no students passed math. In 11 others the percentage passing math was in the single digits. Harry Gamble, a spokesperson in the Department of Education and Early Development, said it's possible the zero passing rate in some small districts was partly due to absences.
''It's obvious we're going to have a lot of kids that aren't going to make it,'' said Shirley Holloway, who is returning this year as Knowles' Commissioner of Education and Early Development.
She and others who advocate a delay in the tests fear that without it, there will be lawsuits, a rise in the dropout rate and a lifetime of diminished opportunities for those who don't get a diploma.
Gov. Tony Knowles has called for a four-year delay, but some lawmakers question whether that's necessary.
''I have not seen how a delay would change anything,'' said Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, who sponsored the law requiring the test.
He will head a new House Special Committee on Education that will take on the exit exam issue -- or high school competency test as he prefers to call it -- and other education issues. Bunde has scheduled a hearing Jan. 27 to take testimony.
Legislators passed the exam law in 1997. Bunde said students and schools have had five years to get ready, and a delay would actually be a disservice. The test is intended to ensure students are coming out of high school with basic skills, Bunde said.
''Right now to give someone an empty diploma is not treating that child fairly,'' Bunde said.
House Speaker Brian Porter said he's not alarmed by the numbers who failed since they were sophomores taking a test for seniors and they have two more years to take the classes they need to master the material.
Students will have a total of 11 chances to pass the test, since they can continue taking it for three years after they graduate.
Holloway, however, said the fact that the law has been in place since 1997 doesn't mean there's been enough time to prepare. It took several years to decide on the standards students should meet and design the test.
''Parents are not going to say they've known about it for five years,'' she said. The first test results they received -- letting them know just how much trouble their child might be in -- were in August or September of 2000.
The state now requires districts to screen children at kindergarten or first grade to see if they're going to need extra help, then test again at third, sixth and eighth grades to see if they're on track to meet the graduation standards. But that system wasn't in place for the students graduating in 2002.
Holloway said the Legislature also needs to consider how to treat students who may have particular problems with the test -- those with disabilities, those who don't speak English as their first language and those who arrive in Alaska late in their high school years.
Districts are now in the process of analyzing their scores and figuring out what they need to change to improve student performance.
Scores were particularly low in some rural districts. Those schools are often so small that one teacher may cover all subjects. Teachers in Bush schools are also often new to the profession and turnover is high.
Meanwhile, students in villages with few job opportunities often don't see the benefits of studying hard, said Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue.
''If our students don't fully understand what the opportunities are, how can they set their goals and their dreams?'' he asked.
Joule suggests phasing in the test. Since students did strongest in reading, he'd initially just require a passing score in that, then add writing and math later.
Educators differ on whether more time is needed.
In the Yupiit School District in Akiachak, where in March 2000 only 5 percent passed reading, 20 percent passed writing and none passed the math section, Superintendent Joe Slats said teachers and students could use more time.
The district started after-school programs this year and emphasized academics in its summer school last year. The district would use the extra time to improve those new programs, he said.
In Hydaburg in Southeast Alaska, just 38 percent passed the reading section and none passed math or writing. Still, Principal Shirley Brazel said she'd rather not see a delay.
''We tend to slump off when we have more breathing room,'' she said.
In the Northwest Arctic Borough, Chief Executive Officer Charles Mason said not only should the state delay the test, it should change it. Some questions aren't appropriate for rural parts of the state, he said. He points to questions in the writing section that ask students to describe how they'd exchange a pair of shoes at a local shoe store.
''To start with, we haven't got a local shoe store,'' Mason said.
He also questions why students must master algebra and geometry to graduate from high school.
''Basic arithmetic has always sufficed in the past,'' Mason said.
Gamble said the state's testing algebra and geometry because business and education leaders were saying students needed more sophisticated math skills for the technical jobs of the future.
That's one reason the department believes students and teachers need more time to prepare -- because the standards they're being asked to achieve are higher than they've ever been.
''They're not minimal standards,'' Gamble said.
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