The Alaska state board of education’s recommendation to postpone the use of a high-stakes graduation exam is setting the stage for a lively debate about standards and testing in the legislature.
This winter, Alaska lawmakers must decide if students need more time to prepare for the exam, which all students, beginning with the class of 2002, must pass to receive a high school diploma.
Similar concerns have slowed or delayed the use of high school exit exams as graduation requirements in other states such as Alabama, Arizona, and Maryland. As it is, 18 states have graduation requirements tied to performance on high school exit exams and 6 states are developing high school exit exams, according to Quality Counts 2001, a special report released this week by Education Week.
The Alaska board unanimously passed a resolution last month recommending that the requirement be postponed until 2006 to give schools more time to align their teaching and curricula with what will be tested. Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, supports the proposed delay.
But some legislators plan to work aggressively to prevent a postponement. They argue that it would be backpedaling from an effort the raise academic standards.
“We expect accountability from our schools, and anything less would be academic child abuse,” said Rep. Con Bunde, a Republican. “We’re getting to a point in public school systems where we need tough love.”
Mr. Bunde believes he has the support of the general public to prevent a delay. The challenge, he said, will be to persuade fellow legislators to join him. “It will certainly be controversial,” he said.
The state board’s recommendation arose because of mounting concerns that thousands of students might be prevented from graduating because they could not pass the exit exam, which has sections covering mathematics, reading, and writing. Under current state law, students will have to pass all three sections to graduate from high school.
The debate about delaying the use of the exam for graduation purposes comes at a particularly difficult time for the state education department because Commissioner Rick Cross recently resigned to become a local superintendent in a small Michigan district. Shirley J. Holloway, who served as education commissioner from 1995 to 1999, will replace him this month. Ms. Holloway was unavailable for comment.
In Alaska, education officials experienced a troubling reality check after test results were released in August for the sophomores who took the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam in the spring of 2000. More than a quarter of the students who took the test failed the reading section, more than half failed the writing portion, and about two-thirds couldn’t pass the math section.
About 8,300 sophomores took the test last spring, even though about 10,200 were supposed to take it.
Students who failed the test or didn’t take it in the spring were allowed to take it again in the fall as high school juniors. Even larger percentages of those students— 54 percent in reading, 73 percent in writing, and 78 percent in math—failed to pass, according to results released last month.
Exemptions or waivers for students who want to get out of taking the test are given only to students who are “severely cognitively disabled,” said Bruce Johnson, the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. As a consequence, the failure rates for special education students were exceptionally high.
Of the 796 special education students who must take the test, only 36 percent have passed the reading section so far, and a mere 8 percent have passed the writing and math sections. Those figures are based on results from the spring and fall testing.
“We don’t want to duck the accountability issue,” Mr. Johnson said. “But we want to be fair with [all students taking the test], who are, for all practical purposes, guinea pigs.”
For now, the state board wants to continue testing students, Mr. Johnson said, but without the high stakes attached. That change, he said, would give schools time to identify what and how much students need to learn to pass the exam.
Editorial Assistant Vanessa Dea contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Delay High-Stakes Graduation Exam, Alaska Board Says