June 27: Anchorage Daily News on exit exams:

Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2000

Alaska education chief Rick Cross is right when he says there's no need to panic over Alaska sophomores' high failure rate in writing and math in the first high school graduation qualifying exam.

Sophomores are still in the first half of their high school careers. They haven't had instruction in all they need to know to pass the exam. Only 33 percent passed the math test; 47 percent passed the writing test. Reading results were better at 70 percent.

The purpose of the exit exams is to make sure students are armed with a minimal degree of competence in education basics of reading, writing and mathematics. Skills in those disciplines are essentially those of intelligent thought, communication and problem solving.

Too often, employers and colleges have reported high school graduates incompetent in basic skills. What Alaska aims to do with the exit exams is to make sure that a high school diploma means something.

That's a good idea.

Students won't be able to float to graduation. They'll have to have the goods.

Otherwise, instead of a diploma they'll receive a certificate of attendance. To an employer, that piece of paper will be a red flag that signals ''don't hire.''

These exams ask more of students, and they cut off their fudge room.

Fine. But let's temper the march to high standards with a dose of reality.

--The exit exams put students on the spot but fundamentally test the education bureaucracy, teachers, parents and the lawmakers who decide education budgets.

If we hold students to these high standards, we must make sure we give them a fair chance to meet them -- not just with multiple shots at the tests but with solid teaching beginning in elementary school that builds students' knowledge.

And we must be willing to provide whatever remedial help,tutoring or other assistance some students will need to make the grade.

Alaska has decided on universal standards. That means to meet them they must be universally available.

--Educators have worried that Alaska Native students will fail at a higher rate than other Alaska students. If they do, let's be clear that it's not because Native students can't do the work. It's because in some villages they don't get the opportunity.

Later this summer the state will have figures on how sophomores in each region and school district fared. That should give us a better idea of which students have the biggest mountain to climb -- and which schools need the most help.

State educators may revise scoring or tweak tests but should do so only for the sake of fairness, not to make the test easier. In the end, Alaska's students will have to show they know to read, write and calculate at an adult level.

Will all students pass, even with help? No. But the vast majority can and should.

Let's make sure all of our students get a fair chance.

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