State Board approves passing scores for high school exit test

Posted: Sunday, September 10, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Passing scores for Alaska's high school exit exam were approved unanimously Saturday by the state Board of Education and Early Development, even though two-thirds of the sophomores taking the test last spring missed the mark in math.

But the board wants the Legislature to delay the effective date, now spring 2002, when diplomas will be withheld from students who fail the exams.

And a legal challenge could come from advocates for the disabled, some of whom say the emphasis on reading, writing and math runs counter to the thrust of special education law, which emphasizes helping students with disabilities make the transition from school to adult life.

The Disability Law Center of Alaska submitted a 14-page comment saying the requirement could pose an arbitrary barrier to employment and higher education in violation of law. The board should ask the Legislature to delay the effective date of exam requirement by at least two years, the center argued.

Some board members expressed concern about the current deadline for having the exam in place, though the board did not specify Saturday how much of a delay they would be seeking.

''I think we have a great outline,'' said board member Ernie Hall of Anchorage, who made the motion to ask the Legislature for a delay. ''But if you're going to have a healthy baby, you need nine months. We may be at about four months here.''

''I share the same concerns about timing and learning lessons from other states,'' said Sally Rue of Juneau.

Several other states have already gone through the process of setting graduation standards, Hall noted, and have often met with legal challenges. Alaskans should learn from what other states have been through, he said.

''I think we've got a lot of problems to address, particularly for kids with learning disabilities,'' Hall said. ''We have to give all these kids the tools they need.

Board members want methods aside from the standardized tests to evaluate students, particularly to answer the objections from parents and advocates of disabled students.

''I'd really like to see us broaden how we measure,'' said Rue. ''This test is not the only tool we should be using.''

But any such change would require amending state law, Education Commissioner Richard Cross said.

''I think we've got to start somewhere,'' said board member Roy Nageak of Barrow. ''I think we've got the right numbers. Later on we can adjust them as we see fit.

''It's all about accountability,'' Nageak said. ''It doesn't matter where a kid is -- urban or rural -- we have to make this happen.''

''It's workable -- there's no need to back off,'' said Bettye Davis, a member of the Anchorage School Board, who was in the audience. ''We're in the beginning stages of this. There will be a lot more to come.''

Board members say the ''high-stakes'' consequence of withholding a diploma has put the issue in the public eye.

''We have people's attention,'' said board chairwoman Susan Stitham of Fairbanks, a 30-year teaching veteran. ''We have sophomores' attention. We have juniors' attention. We have a 'teachable moment' kind of attention.''

Still, Stitham voted with all the other board members to approve Hall's motion for a resolution addressed to the legislators. The board will consider the wording of the resolution at its December meeting.

The pass-fail standards for reading, writing and mathematics were set by panels of 60 educators and other Alaskans in June.

The board put the issue out for public comment at the end of that month after lowering the passing scores suggested by the panels to account for statistical error.

Even with that downward adjustment, two-thirds of sophomores who took the inaugural test in March fell short of the math standard. Students did a bit better on writing, but 52 percent still failed. Three-quarters of the students met the reading requirements.

Students who passed a particular test will not have to take it again. Others will get several opportunities, both before and after their class graduates.

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