The new Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exam was not so scary after all, students and educators said Wednesday.
This week, for the first time, high school sophomores around Alaska are taking the test, which they must pass in order to earn diplomas under state law.
"I thought it was a lot easier than everyone was making out," said Skyview High School student Jinnie Hanson.
She and other 10th graders sat through three hours a day of testing Tuesday and Wednesday, covering reading comprehension and writing. Today, they are taking the mathematics section, the final part of the three-day test.
Skyview Principal John Pothast and his students said that at their school a handful of students finished the tests within the first hour, about 40 percent finished within two hours, and only one student Tuesday and two Wednesday needed to stay beyond the three hours to finish up the untimed tests.
On the same schedule, students in grades three, six and eight are taking new state "benchmark" tests designed to monitor their progress toward the high school proficiency standard.
The inaugural run of the major testing has been going smoothly in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
"It's going really well," said Mark Leal, the district's director of assessment. "Students and staff are taking the test seriously."
Leal has been visiting high schools around the district and hearing good news about the exams.
Sam Stewart, principal at Kenai Central High School, said not a single parent has called to complain.
"I could not have dreamed that it would go so smoothly the first time," he said.
Pothast said any controversies about the testing have been put aside for the time being.
"I think people have just kind of accepted it," he said. "The overall attitude is: It's here. Whether you agree with it or not, kids have to take the test."
The visit last month from state Education Commissioner Rick Cross was helpful, Pothast said, because Cross dealt with misconceptions and clarified for people the role of the exams and the state Quality Schools Initiative, of which the exam is part.
Parents and teachers still do have some concerns with the tests. The most common complaint Pothast has heard says that students already have to take too many tests. And some teachers worry that the tests were instituted because people do not trust teachers to do their jobs, Pothast said.
"I personally don't see it that way," he said. "I think this is just an honest attempt to demonstrate to people that kids are getting what they need."
Skyview students had different concerns, even after putting aside their anxiety about the tests' difficulty.
They worried about students who might know the material but have phobias about the high-stakes testing that could jeopardize their futures.
"Some kids really stress over stuff," said Neiland Darling, who said he dislikes tests in general but thinks he did well on the exam.
His classmate Caelin Kubena said, "It will bring out the winners and losers."
Kubena, whose father is a principal, expressed frustration with the state's handling of school issues.
"If they want us to be able to pass this test, they shouldn't take so much money away from the schools," she said.
The practice tests were sloppy and off-base, stories in the reading section were boring, three hours is a long time to sit still, and requiring adult escorts for any student going to the bathroom was weird, the students complained.
But they praised the actual exams as well done and clearly organized. They especially praised the teachers who proctored the tests and donated fruit, pastries and beverages to refresh the test-takers.
Student Mark McGarry said he was relieved that the material was basic rather than focusing on junior- and senior-level courses. Knowing that students can take it again many times if they have problems also was a comfort, he said.
Now the students are concerned that they must wait until September to get results. The professional educational firm CTB/McGraw-Hill, which wrote the tests under contract with the state, will grade the tests over the summer. A separate panel of Alaska teachers will review the test and decide which scores will pass.
In future years, students should have their scores within a couple of months. This year's grading will take a long time because this is the first time it has been done.
In the fall, the district will examine the overall scores and the test results for individual students, Leal said.
The districtwide scores will help administrators judge how well the district curricula and teaching methods match state standards. Individual scores will help schools plan remedial programs for students needing extra help. The information also will help the district align its own evaluations of student progress with the state's.
"I think we are going to be really close," Leal said. "But I am not absolutely sure."
Pothast said the exams are designed to test things that all students should know based on the state standards the district uses, so he does not foresee the exams changing what the schools teach.
"Our curriculums should be teaching what the standards are," he said. "The test is a mystery, but the standards are concrete."
Students who do not pass any portion of this week's test can retake exam sections in October. They will be able to take the exams repeatedly, even after they finish 12th grade.
Peninsula educators said they are confident now that few students will need that much time with the exams.
"I am anxious to see how our kids have done," said Stewart from KCHS. "I think they are going to represent us well. The hard part is waiting until September."
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