Reactions mixed on state high school graduation exam

Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2001

JUNEAU -- Alaska students don't have to pass a high school exit exam until 2002, but the test is already profoundly affecting schools and students. That became clear Saturday as lawmakers took testimony from around the state about the test and whether it should be delayed four years as Gov. Tony Knowles has proposed.

Petersburg High School Principal Richard Montgomery said students who used to goof off now focus on school and take harder classes, and teachers in all subject areas are making their students write.

''I've seen quality changes in our school system,'' said Montgomery, who opposed the delay. ''We are concerned about losing credibility with our public,'' Montgomery said.

But Laury Scandling, who teaches Juneau students at risk of failing, has seen a more troubling effect. Within the past eight weeks, two juniors dropped out because they feared they wouldn't pass the test, she said.

''They didn't see the point of staying in school,'' Scandling said.

Alaskans from Barrow to Ketchikan testified for almost four hours about whether the test should be delayed, whether it's too hard or too easy, whether students should be able to meet other standards to graduate and whether it's unfair to those with disabilities.

When sophomores took the test for the first time last spring, only a third passed the math portion, about half passed writing and about three-quarters passed the reading. Unless the Legislature changes the law, students in the class of 2002 must pass all three sections to graduate.

Bob Adkins, a retired teacher and principal in Haines, said the state shouldn't delay the test if it expects students to take it seriously.

He's been teaching a remedial class of students who failed the math test. Some didn't bother taking it because they thought the Legislature would delay the test, and others missed class for vacations with their parents to Disneyland and Mexico.

''I will agree with you that the class of 2002 is experiencing a shock because they don't think you mean it,'' Adkins said. ''The class of 2003 will adjust, and they will meet the expectations.''

Others said their districts haven't had time to prepare students for the test.

''At this time we have a serious problem,'' said Mary Miller, parent of a freshman in Nome, where failure rates were high. ''We can be successful, but more time is needed.''

Debbie Ossiander of the Anchorage School Board worried the district will face lawsuits if the test isn't delayed because it must show not only that students were exposed to the material tested, but they've been provided enough remedial help to meet them.

The district just this year received student scores and is having to shift resources to make that remedial help available. Teachers also need retraining to teach a standards-based curriculum, Ossiander said.

Many worried about what will happen to students with learning disabilities.

Juneau high school student Ryan DeLoach said he was diagnosed with a learning disability in second grade and has been allowed to use calculators and spell checkers in school, but they aren't allowed for the graduation test.

''A high school diploma is important to me,'' DeLoach said. ''I plan to go onto college and get a business degree.''

Some who testified said the reading section is too easy, while others worried the math section is too hard. It requires students to use algebra and geometry.

However, Bill Webb, an Anchorage businessman, said even if students don't go on to college, they need math and geometry for fields such as carpentry and electronics.

Many offered solutions other than the governor's proposed four-year delay.

Marjorie Paust, a counselor at Petersburg High School, suggested using multiple tools to measure students' performance, including portfolios. Steve Cathers of Valdez suggested giving two different diplomas, an academic one and a technical one.

A number of people suggested phasing in sections of the exam.

Rep. Con Bunde, who backed the 1997 legislation requiring the test, has opposed delaying it and said Saturday's hearing didn't change his mind.

''The personal stories are always interesting and fascinating, but the issues haven't changed any,'' said Bunde, R-Anchorage. ''I personally do not see a reason for a delay at this point.''

But for House Speaker Brian Porter, the issue wasn't so clearcut after Saturday's hearing.

''It's obviously an area that's extremely complex and there's no simple yes or answer available in my mind,'' said Porter, R-Anchor-age.

Rep. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, said his sense is the Legislature may lower the math standard or delay its effective date, but stick with the 2002 date for English and reading.



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