Parents of learning disabled students worry about exit exams

Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Parents of children with learning disabilities are concerned that high school exit exams will keep their children from getting diplomas.

When Neal Lefler, a 17-year-old Dimond High School student, took the reading exam, frustration overcame him. Lefler has dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to read.

He wrote ''I can't read this'' across Page 10. On pages after that, he wrote, ''See Page 10.''

Lefler has received mostly Bs and Cs by listening to books on tape, memorizing and being read to. He is one of 17,000 Alaska students with disabilities, many of whom had expected to earn high school diplomas even if they didn't reach the reading level of their peers. They are now hitting a wall.

A 3-year-old state law requires that all students pass tests in reading, writing and math to graduate, beginning with the Class of 2002. The tests measure whether students have mastered material required by the Alaska Board of Education. If students fail the tests, they'll leave school with certificates of attendance rather than diplomas.

Students with disabilities make up about 13 percent of Alaska's schoolchildren. Their disabilities range from speech problems to multiple physical and mental handicaps. Two percent or fewer of all students are so severely disabled that they aren't expected to take the tests and have no chance of getting a diploma.

The largest number of students, 9,000, fall into a broad category called ''specific learning disabilities.'' The category covers anyone who is not mentally retarded or suffering from another disability also identified in state laws but has significant learning problems that hold him back in reading, writing ability or math.

The state Department of Education allows extra help for disabled students during testing, such as the use of Braille or large type, but the help is limited.

''There's a whole chunk of kids who qualify as learning disabled,'' said Goldenview Middle School teacher Gary Smith. ''I'll fall out of my chair if they pass it. I hate to see these guys get hammered and not have an alternative.''

State Education Commissioner Rick Cross said he believes a large number of special education students know the material but won't be able to demonstrate it by passing these tests because of their disabilities. The state must figure out different kinds of tests for those kids, he said.

Special education students, under federal law, are entitled to free public education through age 21, which means districts must continue to help those who don't pass.

''We don't want to let them off the hook,'' Cross said.

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