This week, high school students took the Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exam. For sophomores, it was the first whack at the controversial, high-stakes tests. For some juniors, it was the third try to clear the hurdle between them and a high school diploma.

The tests began Tuesday with the math section, continued Wednesday with the writing section and finished Thursday with the reading section.

Student attitudes to the exit exam varied with their academic levels.

Alecia Wood, a sophomore at Skyview High School, said the exit exam divides teens into three types: those who know they passed, those who hope they can pass and those who don't care.

By law, students beginning with the Class of 2002 must pass all three sections to earn a high school diploma in Alaska. With about one in four Alaska teens in peril of failing to graduate under that requirement, legislators, educators and families are questioning the tests' details.

The most controversial is the math section, which only one in three sophomores passed on the first try.

The consensus of the students was that this year's math test was longer than last year's, most of the questions required algebra and geometry and some of the questions were badly worded.

"A lot of the questions were asked weird," Kenai Central High School sophomore Cory Janson said Tuesday.

"They were really unclear. You could kind of get what they wanted. ... They were asking questions you could give a couple different answers to."

Test proctors noted that students took longer to complete the math test than they had during the previous two rounds. The tests began first thing in the morning, and a handful of students were still working on them at the final afternoon bell. Part of the slowness was attributed to students being more cautious.

Janson said he took the practice test on the Internet, blazed through it and then was taken aback at how many answers he got wrong.

"I came up with the idea I needed to take it slow and read the questions carefully," he said. "I took my time today."

Students who get high grades and take advanced math courses expressed confidence in their performance and the exit exam concept.

"I thought it was going to be harder than it was," KCHS sophomore Jenna Gabriel said after finishing the math test. "It was pretty much the same as the practice test."

Her classmate Ian Foley agreed.

"I thought it was pretty easy," he said.

But less-mathematically inclined students had a different viewpoint.

Skyview junior Neil Darling was trying to pass the math test for the third time. He characterized it as "very hard."

"After about the 70th math question I'm about ready to die," he said.

Skyview sophomore Kelly Self has not had algebra or geometry yet.

"I didn't know about half of it," she said.

Darling and Wood debated the level of math required.

"If you don't know this stuff, you shouldn't get out of high school," said Wood, who is taking advanced algebra.

Darling, who is taking basic algebra for the second time, responded, "It doesn't seem basic. I don't even know how to use those protractor things.

"You can get jobs and not be a rocket scientist in math."

KCHS sophomore Rachelle McIntyre does well in math, but her mother works with less-fortunate students, so McIntyre can see both viewpoints.

She said she knows some people dread the tests, especially the math portion.

"I think they kind of psych themselves out, which can make them do worse," she said.

"Not everyone needs to graduate with all the math skills they are asking us to have in order to pass the test."

The students also expressed concern that the writing section was too long and the essay prompts were on topics they knew nothing about or had no interest in.

Wednesday, Skyview sophomore Tara Rich said, "That was really long. You had to write eight pages of essays."

Wood agreed.

"I don't see the need for writing all that stuff," she said.

The students groused that the tests could be shorter, more basic and more interesting and still cover the same material.

But the overall effects of having an exit exam, they acknowledged, is a complicated and two-sided issue.

KCHS sophomore Katie Burck said the tests are less stressful than regular classroom tests because students have multiple chances to pass.

"The first test, I think, is just to get used to the whole idea," she said.

Dean Shinn, another Kenai sophomore, thought all students should be able to pass the exit exam.

"The kids coming up should think about learning this stuff. They should work hard to get to the level they need to be," he said. "This is pretty much stuff you need."

But some students think that hard work would be futile. Some students are telling their friends that they are placing all their bets on the Legislature postponing the effective dates of the tests so they will not have to pass them.

"In my class, I've heard four or five guys talking, 'why even bother to come back next year?'" Darling said.

Burck said she, too, has heard rumors that some students are so pessimistic about passing the tests they are dropping out of school.

Shinn replied, "I guess it's better than having someone who has not learned anything get a diploma."

Burck acknowledged that some people have been able to squeak through high school without learning anything by taking easy classes, showing up for attendance and getting D grades.

On the other hand, Janson said, some students now are pushing themselves in math because of the exams.

"I've heard a couple kids say they want to be in a higher class to make (the exam) easier."

Michael Rosser, a junior taking the test a second time, said the exam is one factor prompting him to go back and take more algebra to firm up his math skills.

"I don't want to go through four years of high school to get this certificate of attendance that says I sat there," he said.

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