Test punishes youth; High-stakes exit exam keeps deserving teens from future

Posted: Thursday, June 24, 2004

My fellow Alaskans, we are in an 11th hour in education because 707 to 1,160 students this year are being denied diplomas and many of them have fulfilled their school's requirements. I met one of those students and cannot keep silent.

Samantha went to school in Southeast Alaska and was on the honor roll. She planned on going to college and being a nurse or EMT. She also struggled in math, but not according to her school. She was given an exit exam prep class this year in math and scored an A+. Improvement had been made, but was it enough?

Samantha took the exam this year, her senior year, and missed the math section by three points. She tried her hardest. On the other hand, the proctors at her school did not try their hardest, because many of the students were cheating left and right. Unsupervised bathroom breaks allowed students to go to bathrooms and use graphing calculators. Test booklets were not collected during breaks so students could flip through them in advance, and some probably did. But not Samantha. She always followed the rules and had a great reason: Her parents were teachers and brought her up to be honest and do her best.

When the parents complained, no one at the school all the way up the Department of Education and Early Development even cared. No one acknowledged that wrongdoing had occurred. Samantha's parents even pointed out that maintenance staff were noisily cleaning windows during much of the exam also sending a distracting racket to the students, some who were working and some who were allowed to cheat.

Les Morse of the DEED decided to take some kind of action, but not with the parents. Without any knowledge or consent from them, Les had the school find the girl and question her. Here's how that happened.

On March 9 of this year, which was Samantha's birthday, a large non-Native administrator came and got Samantha out of her third period class and took her to a small, locked storage room where she was intensely interrogated. Outraged and in fear, Samantha crossed her arms over her chest and said how uncomforted she felt by the administrator's extremely unprofessional behavior. But the interrogation went on.

Samantha did not want to go to her graduation this year and receive that "certificate" that Con Bunde talks of as being a good marker of "achievement." Can you blame her? Worse, Sharon, who is a teacher, has decided to leave the profession because such an injustice has been paid to her daughter. Samantha's brother also has dropped out of school in his 10th year rather than face the lesson he saw his sister endure: try your hardest and in the end someone will rip the carpet out from under you.

At this point, let's look at the two seasons of trauma in education for Alaska Natives and see if today is any different. Those seasons were language termination and boarding school education, by the way. They were fine pieces of educational policy that truly aimed to improve things, but sorely missed the mark. The theme of those two seasons was that Alaska Natives would have no control over what was taken from them and no recourse when they tried to complain.

And this is what we have today for Samantha: no control and no recourse. No one from her school all the way up to the DEED has said there was wrongdoing. But that is not what a distraught family knows to be true.

Ask an elder today what the education felt like when they were young. Good experiences are often mixed with a traumatic course of events. Samantha will be an elder someday and will have a right to feel the same way. After all, she is Aleut and proud of it!

An excellent solution to testing in Alaska is use endorsed diplomas, which not only removes the punishment aspect of the test but also gives students encouragement and incentive in learning. Legislators Guess, Crawford and Gara have advocated for similar bills, but none were passed. As a result, it is up to us to raise an outcry that will stop an educational policy that is unfair to many Alaskans.

I am asking Alaskans to join together and stand against this exam. Visit the Web site www.noexitexam.org for information on how to do that. Call me at (907) 222-2894. Don't sit back and agree that this is wrong but not take action. Sign our guestbook; sign a petition. The fact is that having a single exam which is full of Lower 48, urban affluent perspectives, worldviews and biases is an unfair thing not only to Alaska Natives, but to all students who are not from that middle and upper class group.

Remember, what happened to Samantha has happened to all of us when it happens to one of us. Raise your voice. Don't let the injustice continue.

Jonathan Doll of Anchorage is a former teacher in the community of Deering and now is a doctoral candidate in educational ethics and equity.

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