State seeks feedback

Posted: Sunday, July 02, 2000

It's been more than a week since the state released recommended cut-off scores for passing the new Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exam.

But the state board of education will not establish the official passing scores until September, and it is soliciting public comment over the summer.

Phasing in the tests has generated controversy. Concerns have been raised that the tests will shortchange disabled students, Alaska Natives or transient students.

"We have some pretty serious challenges before us," said Harry Gamble, spokesman for the state Department of Education and Early Development.

People have been discussing the issues since the Legislature passed the law in 1997 mandating that students pass an exam in order to earn a high school diploma. The move to exams and higher standards is part of a national trend, and the same questions have come up in other states, he said.

Rural Bush districts may have worries, but most of the students who fail the exams will be in Alaska's cities, Gamble said.

Districts statewide have differed in their responses to the challenges. Some are well-prepared, while others are not. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is doing pretty well, he said.

The state, working through the Quality Schools Initiative, is trying to upgrade education standards, and part of that movement includes remediation for students needing help to get over the exam hurdle.

"We've got a lot of things planned," Gamble said. "School districts are going to have to do a lot of readjusting."

The state is doing some readjusting of its own, as it navigates the uncharted waters of ramping up the exams.

On June 5, Education Commissioner Rick Cross announced that the cut-off scores would be phased in over two years. He cited public concerns that the exams are starting too soon for all students to adequately prepare.

On June 23, he announced that the state is abandoning that idea and returning to the original concept of a one-time setting of the requisite scores.

Gamble said that the change came after consultation with the testing experts at CTB/McGraw-Hill. It reflected statistical details of the test procedure and not response to any reaction to the earlier announcement.

"There would not have been a significant difference in the number of kids who passed the test," he explained.

The exam's three sections are scored on a scale from 100 to 600. The recommended passing scores, derived from the statewide committee that analyzed test questions June 12 through 14, are 305 for reading, 356 for writing and 383 for mathematics.

About 8,200 high school sophomores took the first test in March. They and their school districts will receive their scores this fall.

The next step is for the state board to put the passing scores into regulations. The board will meet Sept. 8 and 9 to consider the matter.

The cut-off scores will not be official until the state board recommendations pass muster with the state Department of Law and are filed by the lieutenant governor.

Alaskans are invited to submit written comments until Aug. 18.

Gamble said the state is looking at ways to make the process work as well as possible to serve individual students.

"We are just going to have to get better at meeting the needs of all students," he said. "We are willing to do anything -- except lower the standards."

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