Making all Alaska high school students pass a standard test to win a diploma levels the playing field for everyone. Or does it?
State law mandates that, starting in 2002, students must pass the three-part exam to graduate. The exam debuted in March; the first scores will be released in September.
Parents and teachers working with disabled students statewide are organizing to change the new rules, charging that the tests are unfair to some types of students.
"I'm starting to see this as a civil rights issue," said Holly Kristian-sen, who works as a parent volunteer for the Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education.
PARENTS Inc., a parent training group, and the Disability Law Center are helping parents and teachers form a working group to lobby the Legislature to modify the law mandating the competency exam. The groups sponsored a teleconference Wednesday evening and plan to organize a working group in July.
Kristiansen hosted the central Kenai Peninsula teleconference site for PARENTS Inc. The concerned groups support the basic concept of the exit exam but want more attention to dealing with the ramifications, she emphasized.
Discussing the overall concept of a test to enforce accountability and standards is one thing, but watching it trickle down to the individual level is another, Kristiansen said.
"One kid is helped. Another is devastated," she said. "It has a very potent effect on individuals."
The governor's council also has come out with a position paper critiquing the exams as they are now administered.
"The council supports the implementation of high standards for all students and applauds the Legislature's initiative to hold all schools accountable for the achievement of those standards," according to the draft position paper. "However, the council also believes that the system, as it is currently designed, does not address the best interest of all students, especially students receiving special education services."
Disabled advocates began organizing around the exam issue after the November 1999 Pathways Conference, a biennial statewide meeting about disabilities resources and information that PARENTS Inc. sponsors. In January, they held their first teleconference.
At the second teleconference, parents around the state voiced worries that their children would never graduate from high school under the new rules and that the Alaska school system is ill prepared to assist special needs students with the tests.
Gloryann Bailey, a special education teacher at North Star Elementary School in Nikiski, said she and her colleagues already are seeing fallout from the exit exam at the elementary level.
One mother told Bailey of fears that her third-grader would not pass the test in 12th grade. And teachers held more students back a grade than in previous years.
Bailey said she believes school reform and the exam are good overall, but the state's narrow definition of how the tests are administered can be improved. Otherwise good students with learning disabilities will suffer, she predicted.
"Kids will just drop out and get their GED (Graduate Equivalency Diploma)," she said.
Steve Essley from the Disability Law Center said Alaska families may have to sue to get their children over the exit exam hurdles.
"It is very much a litigious issue nationwide," he told the teleconference participants.
"If the kids are not taught what the test tests, a federal judge might give the students diplomas. But that only happened once, a long time ago, and a lot has happened since then."
Compared to national norms, Alaska's rules requiring students to pass the exam are narrow, and the state's education standards are vague, he said.
Using exit exams to reform schools and raise education standards is a national movement, but other states that have pioneered exams have bogged down in legal disputes, he said.
Teleconference participants were skeptical that the exit exam will achieve its reform goals.
Kristiansen said there is no solid evidence to back up claims that exit exams raise education standards.
"I think we need a lot more research," she said.
The teleconference organizers urged concerned parents to get a copy of the handbook on participation guidelines, to prepare for a potential lobbying effort in the fall and to carefully document all interactions with schools about special education arrangements and testing. PARENTS Inc. is compiling family surveys about exit exam experiences and planning to put out a newsletter and a parent handbook before school starts.
For more information, call PARENTS Inc. at (800) 478-7678.
Meanwhile, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is caught in the midst of the fray.
How many modifications or accommodations are legal or fair for the tests is a sticky issue, said Ed McLain, the district's assistant superintendent for instruction.
For example, it would be appropriate for a blind student to get a Braille test, but inappropriate for a dyslexic to have someone else read a reading test, McLain said.
"Those kinds of modifications are just not allowed in the high school exam," he said. "That has some of the special ed people really upset. There is nothing we can do about that at the local level."
People appreciate the intent of the law, which is to nudge underachieving students to perform closer to their potential. But as the ramifications unfold, the exit exam is prompting some serious scrutiny, he said.
McLain said the district is concerned about three types of students: the intellectually impaired who work hard but cannot master advanced material; the learning disabled; and transfer students who come into the district without adequate preparation.
The district, like the disabled advocacy groups, is waiting for September when everyone will get the first peek at how students fared on the exam.
McLain predicted the law will be modified with the input of the groups now organizing.
"I believe they will work something out," he said.
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