Eyebrows went up around the state when Education Commis-sioner Rick Cross announced June 23 that only one third of sophomores taking the first Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exam passed the mathematics section.
But educators familiar with the test plans, including those from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, say schools and students are on track for success.
About three-fourths passed the reading section, and about half passed the writing section.
Implications for peninsula students are unclear because they will not receive scores until fall.
"We won't know anything here on the peninsula until mid-September," said Superintendent Donna Peterson. "We want to see the data before we make decisions."
Students, starting with the Class of 2002, must pass all three sections to get diplomas. They got their first crack at the test in March.
About 60 teachers, parents and others met in Anchorage June 12 through 14 to decide the passing scores. They took the tests themselves, analyzed the links between questions and state learning standards, and then determined how many points reflected the lowest acceptable score for a high school graduate.
Participants had to sign oaths of secrecy and made their recommendations without knowing how well students actually scored.
To set the cut scores, the committee used a unique process called "bookmarking." CTB/McGraw-Hill, the developer and publisher of the test, gave committee members booklets listing all the questions, one to a page, in order from easiest to hardest based on how many students answered correctly. Each person marked their choice for how far through the questions a high school graduate would have to get to demonstrate minimal competency.
Groups pooled their conclusions to reach consensus recommendations on the cut-off scores.
Two central peninsula educators served on the committee: Dorothy Gray, staff development teacher specialist for the district, and Sandy Miller, a math teacher at Soldotna High School. Gray, who also serves as the state's director for the National Writing Project, worked on the writing section.
Miller worked on the mathematics section.
They described the process as fascinating and optimistic.
The cooperation and dedication to high standards impressed Miller.
She said she had worried that setting a consensus passing score would be hard, but it wasn't.
"Much to my amazement, we were all in agreement within a narrow margin," she said.
Gray said the procedure ran very smoothly.
"I was very encouraged by what I saw on the test. I thought it was a very good representative of assessing writing," she said.
"I didn't see any questions I thought were unfair or beyond the scope of high school students."
Gray grew up in New York, which for many years has required high school students to pass examinations to earn diplomas. The high expectations helped her, she said.
"I'm a product of that system and a support of it," she said.
Miller said the low pass rate on the mathematics section reflected the young age of the students rather than problems with math education.
"I don't think that's really a bad score," she said.
Students take a sequence of mathematics classes, and the more skilled students move ahead of their classmates. As sophomores, some students are in second-year algebra already while others are in geometry or other foundational courses.
The test asks questions about some aspects of geometry, which sophomores may not yet have learned, Miller cautioned.
To pass the mathematics section -- and graduate in the future -- the students will need to master at least first-year algebra, she said.
Some portions of the tests gave students more trouble than others, they noted. On the math section, many lost points because they could not explain the steps they used to reach their solutions. On the writing section, multiple-choice questions requiring careful scrutiny of the questions tripped them up.
Gray and Miller said peninsula students are ready for the tests, and they expect the district's scores to come in above state averages.
"I know our district has been teaching to national and state standards for at least 10 years," Miller said. "So it shouldn't be an issue."
Gray and Miller will brief teachers about their observations on the tests before classes resume Aug. 23.
The district already has started programs to help students keep up with their peers, including testing students' progress at younger grades, tutoring, some summer school offerings and After the Bell, an after-school supplementary program in Soldotna.
This past year, about 30 students at Soldotna High School attended math tutoring sessions through After the Bell, Miller said.
"I think once the reality of this qualifying exam hits we're going to see a lot more."
That reality will hit this fall, when individual and district scores arrive.
Students who failed any section of the test will have four more chances to pass the exam before the end of their senior year and six more chances after that.
The scores are expected in September, but the state is working with CTB/McGraw-Hill to try to get them a month earlier, said Harry Gamble, spokesman for the state Department of Education and Early Development.
The earlier release would allow schools to make adjustments based on test scores at the beginning of the year, he said.
In any case, the complete test results, including breakdowns by districts and ethnic groups, should be available by early September.
Gov. Tony Knowles has called for a statewide education summit on Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 in Girdwood.
Analyzing the results of the first round of testing will be a major topic at the meeting, Gamble said.
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