State lawyer lays out legal hazards in exit test

Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A state lawyer began laying out legal hazards the state may face in requiring a high school exit exam as a House committee took testimony Wednesday on whether to delay the test.

Assistant Attorney General Phillip Reeves told the House Special Committee on Education that based on federal court rulings on other states' exams, Alaska would probably be on solid ground in the area of content validity -- showing the test accurately measures students' knowledge in the areas being tested.

Reeves said he thinks the state could defend its efforts in this area because it used a large national test development firm, received input from Alaskans, worked to eliminate cultural bias and has a process of continually reviewing the exam.

''A lot of effort's gone into developing a test that educators feel and experts feel is a valid test for content,'' Reeves said.

A potentially more vulnerable area for the state is instructional validity -- showing schools' curriculum and total educational program offer students a reasonable opportunity to gain the knowledge they're being tested on, Reeves said.

In other states, proving that involved surveying teachers and districts to find out at what grade students were taught certain skills, describing remedial education available for those who needed it and describing teaching training programs and instructional materials.

Alaska's exit test is designed to be the culmination of a series of benchmark exams starting in third grade that are to track students' progress from early grades, identify those who need extra help and identify gaps in the curriculum. That program would be the state's logical defense in a lawsuit.

But because the first of those benchmark exams wasn't given until 2000, students might argue they didn't receive the benefit of that program, Reeves said.

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.

Gov. Tony Knowles has asked the Legislature to delay the exit exam requirement until 2006.

Shirley Holloway, commissioner of the state Department of Education and Early Development, told the committee the state needs more time to make sure students have had a chance to learn the material, to make sure teachers have had the training they need and make sure schools' curricula fit what's being tested.

The state also needs to continue refining the test itself and decide how to test students who are new to Alaska, those with limited English language skills and those with disabilities.

She promised to bring lawmakers a detailed plan of what the state will do over the next four years if the Legislature agrees to a delay.

''I think we can do this and do this well and be very accountable,'' Holloway said. ''I just don't want to get fouled up in the courts. Nor do I want to be unfair to the students when the system wasn't ready.''

Several others who spoke Wednesday also favored a delay. The exception was Tanya Totemoff, a student from Tatitlek in the Chugach School District, who said the test is good for students.

''Students actually learn something in high school,'' she said. The test wasn't hard, she said, and other schools would find their scores go up if they concentrated on academics rather than sports, trips and that sort of thing.

The committee took no action on the test delay bill Wednesday. Committee Chairman Con Bunde said he'd bring it up again in two weeks.

Bunde, an Anchorage Republican, said he's not convinced of the need for a delay.

''No matter what we do, there will be legal challenges,'' Bunde said. The merits of those cases will be decided by the courts, not the Legislature, he said.

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