JUNEAU -- Paula Savikko's class of sixth- and seventh-graders was working on fractions when Gov. Tony Knowles walked in this morning to announce legislation that would delay the high school exit exam by four years.
Knowles, who chose the classroom in Juneau's Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School for his news conference, might face a fractious Legislature in trying to extend the effective date of the graduation qualifying exam from 2002 to 2006.
But the Democratic governor said he was doing his math, in that "a responsible and fair time line" is a critical part of the formula for assuring educational excellence.
"With a formula, you have to have all parts of it right if you're going to get the right answer," he said.
The state already has moved to put in place higher standards and an assessment program to see how students are doing, Knowles said. Now what's needed is accountability if it's not working and additional resources to address problems in getting students ready for the test, he said.
So far, math is the big concern. Only a third of high school sophomores last year passed the exit exam in math. Less than half passed the writing exam, while about three in four passed the reading exam.
Students can take the exit exam twice in their sophomore, junior and senior years, giving them six chances to pass while still in school. If students who are now juniors failed every test, under current law they would not receive a diploma in 2002 but would get only a certificate of attendance. It was the prospect of so many students failing to achieve a diploma that led Knowles last fall to say he would call for a delay in implementing the exit exam.
Today, the governor cited support for a delay in the exam from the Association of Alaska School Boards, the State Board of Education and Early Development, the Alaska Council of School Administrators and the Alaska Parent-Teacher Association, all of which had representatives at the news conference. He conceded that not all groups support a four-year delay but said some people advocate an even later effective date.
Under the governor's bill, current seventh-graders would be the first to face losing high school diplomas without passing the test.
"Make no mistake -- it will happen" to some students, he said. "We shouldn't take the easy way out by lowering standards."
The Republican majority in the Legislature appears hesitant to postpone the graduation test at all, let alone for four years. Rep. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican who chairs the House Special Committee on Education, has scheduled a teleconferenced statewide public hearing on issues related to student competency and high school diplomas from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.
Bunde said just the talk of putting off consequences for failing the test is having a bad effect.
"I would just point out in Fairbanks right now they've had 200 students who are ducking the test because they're hoping it will be put off," he said. "My question still is, what will the excuses be in four years? What will we do in the meantime that will change anything? ... I need to understand what the delay will accomplish."
Knowles said he proposes only to delay the extreme consequence of denying diplomas. The tests will be given as scheduled and will become part of the students' transcripts that will be reviewed by academic institutions and potential employers, so there is still incentive for students to master subject matter, he said.
Savikko, the Dzantik'i Heeni teacher, said she supports the delay. "I think it's important all kids have an opportunity to be successful."
Bill McAllister is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.
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