Educators concerned about ethnic gap on exit exam

Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State educators are concerned about the huge gap in scores between different ethnic groups taking the high school exit exam.

On average, students who took the tests in the spring made progress in math and held steady in writing. But specific student groups failed the tests in droves.

White students outscored other ethnic groups. Alaska Native students, on average, produced the lowest scores.

Students graduating in 2004 or later will have to pass the exams to earn high school diplomas.

The majority of students who tested for the second or third time did not pass. Across the state, low-income students floundered. Most special education students failed.

''This is not a simple issue,'' said Shirley Holloway, commissioner of Education and Early Development. ''People are going to want to look for a silver bullet and think if we did one thing, we could fix it. This is not a time to be pointing fingers at each other.''

The second full round of tests in math, reading and writing produced the first solid data about which teens are failing, said Harry Gamble, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development spokesman.

Of 8,659 Alaska sophomores who took the math exam this spring, about 44 percent passed, compared with 33 percent in 2000. Writing scores barely dipped from last year, with about 47 percent of 8,664 students passing. But reading proficiency scores tumbled from about 75 percent in 2000 to roughly 66 percent passing this spring.

Educators were disappointed but not surprised by the gulf between racial groups, Holloway said. For the past 20 years, Alaska Natives have performed worse on national standardized tests than white students.

The state tests were created by hundreds of Alaskans during several years, based on what state residents thought Alaskans should know, Holloway said. Committees scoured material for accuracy, cultural bias and relevancy.

''This is what Alaskans have said they want their students to be able to do,'' Holloway said. ''And now we have a gap. What's causing that gap? It's not just a school issue. It's not just a family issue. We have to address it from a community perspective.''

Possible factors in low test scores include poor attendance and difficult relationships between the school and community, said Ed McLain, deputy commissioner for education. Teacher turnover can hurt student performance, and what's being taught in the classroom might not match with test questions.

''All of these are pieces, and I think they're really important, but it's going to need all of these pieces,'' Holloway said. ''The system and other factors need to change because the students are capable.''

During the next year, more than $50 million in state and federal money will go toward improving student test performance. Money will support reading and summer school programs and teacher recruitment, retention and mentoring.

The state has also trained eight Alaskans with education backgrounds who have experience in school improvement, McLain said. Over the next year, they will advise schools with low performance levels and oversee school improvement plans using the test data.

Holloway plans to propose to the State Board of Education and Early Development that the state assign students identification numbers. This would allow them to monitor a child year to year through the stream of public education tests and record more solid data, she said.

''In public education, we're not tenacious enough over a longer period of time to see the results,'' Holloway said.

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