Education commissioner Rick Cross said Monday that the state's high school exit exam is both a work in progress and, for now, a more telling test of Alaska's adults than its students.
Mr. Cross made those points as he responded to questions about how to make sure the exit exams in reading, writing and mathematics are fair to students with learning disabilities.
''If we can get our adult behavior under control, our kids will fool us and do real well in the long term,'' he said. It's the adults -- administrators, parents, teachers -- who need to figure out how to fairly test youngsters with learning disabilities.
What Mr. Cross does not want to see is what he calls the ''back-door'' answer to tough questions of fairness. That's when students, parents or other people clamor for exemptions from the test.
Do that, Mr. Cross said, and you lower expectations for students. What follows is diminished performance by everyone involved. Students swiftly figure out that they don't have to do as much. Teachers tend to demand less. Even loving parents sometimes find it easier to accept limitations for their children and then find ways to break through them.
So far, Mr. Cross said, parents are ''remaining very positive in wanting the best outcome for their kid, not an excuse for their kid.''
Those parents want their children to pass a high school exit exam, to have the diploma when they leave high school. At the same time, those parents understand the diploma will be more valuable if it means their students leave school with a certain degree of knowledge.
Standards should be high. Mr. Cross does not want to compromise them. Nor does he want them to be vague. That's why he's now editing what he calls ''descriptors,'' short accounts of what knowledge students who pass the exit exams will have.
Rather than try to judge knowledge by a number score, descriptors will try to tell teachers, students, parents, employers and universities what an Alaska student with a high school diploma can be expected to know.
For example, students who pass will have the knowledge to select and use appropriate scales in measuring something, determine the probability of an event, select an appropriate sampling group and be able to follow multistep directions to complete a task.
In other words, they'll be able to read, write and solve problems. Not all at the same level but at or above a minimum level.
Mr. Cross said public support of the need for this knowledge is vital. We need to ''agree on what our kids should know and then make darn sure they know it.''
At the same time, he points out that one of the main reasons for controversy over similar exams in other states grew when education officials dug their heels in and refused to change tests to account for differences like learning disabilities.
''A whole lot of kids can met these standards and need to meet these standards but just can't do it in the traditional way,'' Mr. Cross said.
If there's another way for them to demonstrate their grasp of required knowledge, then they should be tested that way. Tests are not the purpose of education. Knowledge is the purpose. Tests are a means of measurement of that knowledge, and if one test is not a fair measure, then some other should take its place.
''We'll never have a perfect assessment,'' Mr. Cross said. ''Therefore we have to continue improving what we have.''
That includes making sure that students with learning disabilities aren't left with nothing more than a certificate of attendance.
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