Two dozen grim-faced parents gathered at Kenai Central High School earlier this week to hear hard facts about their children and the Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exam.
'It's an avalanche coming down the mountain. We're trying to get people out of the way and to where they want to be.'
KCHS guidance counselor
Under state law, this year's high school juniors and younger students will not get high school diplomas unless they pass all three sections of the high-stakes exam. Scores from the first two rounds of testing show that about 40 percent of the KCHS Class of 2002 may fail.
"I think it was a shock to everyone," said Jon Lillevik, who has served as a guidance counselor at the school for 24 years.
"On the one hand, it is an opportunity to push for change," he told the parents. "On the other hand, it is a real disaster."
Kenai's results are not abnormal. The numbers at KCHS are close to the peninsula and state averages. The official fall count of juniors in the district was almost 800. Projecting from the KCHS figures, an estimated 200 to 300 juniors in the district may be unable to pick up diplomas at the end of their senior year.
Lillevik and the rest of the KCHS staff are scrambling to help students and to alert the public about the crisis pending for Alaska's teens.
"It's an avalanche coming down the mountain. We're trying to get people out of the way and to where they want to be," he said.
Already, educators at KCHS are seeing students drop out of high school because of the tests. They have lists of names of juniors, sophomores and freshmen who may not be able to clear the exit exam hurdle. And they have changed the courses offered this semester to focus on students with low scores.
The tests will be given next over three days starting Feb. 27. Juniors who have not yet passed will need to retake whatever parts they failed before. It will be their third opportunity to take the test. All sophomores will be taking the test for the first time.
Each time the test is given, the questions are different, but the subjects they cover are the same. The tests are kept under lock and key until administered.
Principal Sam Stewart offered the parents some reassuring words.
"We are doing everything we can to help them pass," he said.
The students and teachers did not receive the scores to the first tests, given last spring, until after classes were set up at the beginning of the current school year. The scores had been due earlier in August, but did not arrive until it was too late for schools to change schedules.
Such delays in getting information from publisher CTB/McGraw-Hill have hampered the students' and schools' ability to adjust.
KCHS Counselor Mark Manuel said the delays left some students in math classes that are not preparing them for the exam questions.
"If we had known earlier, we might have placed them differently from day one," he said.
The second round of scores arrived several weeks late, on the last day of school before Christmas break.
Everyone is waiting for the state to get and publish the revised practice test. It is now due out Monday, 25 days behind schedule.
Since returning to school in January, the principal, counselors and teachers have held urgent meetings to review the results and plan responses.
"This dominates our every waking minute. And sometimes our sleep," Manuel said.
When the new semester began Jan. 15, the school dissolved one reading class and one personal finance math class, reassigning students and teachers to special writing and math classes. The school also offers peer tutoring twice a week and after-school sessions in writing and math four days a week, although many students say they cannot attend because of conflicts with other obligations or activities.
When the students come to the tests at the end of the month, the teachers will feed them breakfast, offer them pep talks and provide snacks.
But Stewart warned that the schools cannot do everything. He spoke about pressure for changes on the state level and, even more important, a role for parents.
He urged parents to help their children take the tests seriously, focus on their studies, get any extra help they might need and maintain optimism that they can persevere and pass.
"Our message is, there is hope," he said.
The school officials admitted after the meeting that they were disappointed that so few parents came to the meeting. The school sent letters to the parents of all 141 sophomores and the 55 juniors who need to take the exams again, then followed up by using the automatic phone system to call them twice with reminders.
They estimated that the parents attending represented 20 students, mostly sophomores, some of whom school officials expect to do fine on the tests.
"Twenty-four people was a weak turnout," Lillevik said.
"However, many of those parents have students that may encounter some difficulties on the test. We were not necessarily preaching to the choir."
Asked about the absent parents of the 55 juniors identified as most at risk, Stewart responded, "No comment."
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