Tuesday morning, hundreds of Kenai Peninsula high school students will sit down to take the first portion of the Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exam.
For some, it will be an easy pass and little more than a waste of time. But for some others, it will be an ordeal. For all, the results could play a major role in determining their future.
"This is a very big deal," said Dennis Dunn, principal of the Kenai Alternative School. "It think we are going to be OK. But it is going to take some real hard, focused work by all involved."
While the students work on the test problems, parents, lawmakers and educators are facing a challenge of their own -- how to handle a swarm of controversies connected to the high-stakes exam.
Under state law, students must pass all three sections of the exam -- reading, writing and mathematics -- to earn a diploma, starting with the Class of 2002. They had their first opportunity to tackle the tests in the spring of 2000.
The pass rates, particularly for the mathematics section, have been disappointing. Only one in three Alaska high school sophomores passed that portion of the exam on the first go-round. The second round of testing in October still left most of the class short of the math mark.
The tests this week will be a third chance for juniors and the first chance for sophomores.
Since the scores and failure rates became known, educators have been scrambling to respond to the potential crisis of hundreds of young Alaskans unable to graduate.
The state board of education has requested a four-year delay in the exam date, the Alaska Association of School Boards a two-year delay, and the governor an unspecified delay. The Legislature is debating the matter this session, with a decision unlikely until the school year ends. Saturday, a Senate committee collected testimony from educators about the exam (See related story, page A-1).
"I don't think they are going to postpone," Dunn said. "It is prudent to assume it is not going to change. To do otherwise is irresponsible."
Schools have redoubled efforts to assist students having trouble clearing the testing hurdle. Peninsula high schools have increased after-school tutoring opportunities. For example, Nikiski Middle-Senior High School sponsored a series of Saturday practice test sessions.
Dunn said he sees mixed results from the exit exam.
"Yes, we have some kids who are really stressed out about it."
Some students, usually with other obstacles to their schooling, feel so burdened by the additional task of the exit exam that they are leaving school, he said.
But he sees more students responding positively to the challenge, buckling down and focusing on their studies so they can pass.
"They are seeing now the connection between what goes on in the classroom and the bigger picture. And part of the bigger picture is the exam," he said.
But, like other educators, he expressed concern about the math test. The geometry and algebra questions are unfamiliar to some students and should be modified, he said.
"I think that would be helpful," Dunn said.
The state Department of Education and Early Development, which supervises the exam, has gone back to the drawing board to examine why so few students are doing well on the exit exam.
All three sections of the test are under re-evaluation, but the math section is drawing the most scrutiny.
The state has appointed Ed McLain, the assistant superintendent for instruction at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, to co-chair the state math content review committee.
He said people tried to fit too much into the math test as it now stands.
"It just wasn't a narrow enough focus," he said. "I don't want to be construed as saying we've gone down the wrong path for two years. We have made errors. But we have learned a lot."
McLain, who served on the original committee that developed the math section of the exit exam, said the state was particularly interested in a Kenai Peninsula project he led -- the district's efforts to develop a certified diploma.
That project began in 1997, before the state mandated the exit exam. It is on hold until the exit exam issues are resolved. The peninsula's certified diploma would offer different types of diplomas reflecting graduates' achievement levels. After lengthy discussion, the dist-rict's certified diploma committee drew distinctions between foundational, proficient and advanced skills and knowledge.
"This is the step I believe the state didn't do four years ago, and the district did," McLain said.
In his opinion, the national school reform movement toward higher education standards got confused with the graduation tests. Educators, particularly math teachers, tried to incorporate their teaching goals into the test. In the process, the test ended up covering more than the foundational skills lawmakers intended.
"These are two different questions. One, what do we want our students to know (and) be able to do? Two, would you deny a diploma to a student if he or she did not have that skill or know that content?
"These two questions are being confused with each other in the current Alaska HSGQE debate," he wrote in a memo to legislators.
The six-member committee met Feb. 1 and 2 in Anchorage with a working group of 20 advisers including business people, math teachers and special education specialists.
"We think that committee will play a major role in that whole legislative debate," McLain said.
The committee reviewed transcripts of the original debates in the Legislature to confirm the intent of the lawmakers who mandated the tests. The members got a special security clearance to look at the actual test questions, which they are discussing with representatives of CTB/McGraw-Hill, the publisher that developed the exam.
The committee does not want to start over, but is interested in "re-engineering" the math test by changing selected questions, McLain said.
"I am optimistic that we will get a good product out of this," he said.
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