High schoolers push for end to Alaska's exit exam

JUNEAU — Some high school students traveled nearly 900 miles to lobby state lawmakers on Monday to do away with Alaska’s school exit exam, saying the test is so simple, it’s laughable.

The exit exam was just one part of Gov. Sean Parnell’s omnibus education bill that drew students, superintendents and education department officials to the Capitol for testimony. The wide-ranging bill also would allow schools denied charter status to appeal to the state and increase the student funding formula, known as the base student allocation.

Dillingham High School senior Brandie Bocatch told the Senate Education Committee that the state’s exit exam has become irrelevant.

“It’s on an eighth-grade level,” Bocatch said.

Such an exit test was first given to seniors in 1998, but only about 50 percent showed a proficiency in core areas, Mike Hanley, Alaska education and early childhood development commissioner, has said.

The test has been revised over the years, and students as young as those in the eighth grade now take essentially the same test as the one given to high school seniors.

But Bocatch said some young students in Dillingham believe that by passing the test, their education is over.

“We’ve heard the same thing on taking an exit exam in the eighth grade, that students tend to drop out afterwards,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, the committee chairman.

Passing the exit exam is required to receive a diploma. Parnell’s education bill would require a college base-assessment exam be given in place of the exit exam.

But Kake City School District Superintendent Kevin Shipley had concerns about dropping the exit exam.

“How does it affect our accountability to the state?” Shipley said. “That needs to be addressed in this bill.”

The state currently pays a vendor, Data Recognition Corp. of Maple Grove, Minn., $2.7 million annually to administer the exams in Alaska.

Even if the state does away with the test, Hanley testified that his department would like to allow former students to return to take the current exit exam to receive their diploma for the next three years.

He said 300 former students returned last year to take the exit exam, and half of them passed. That extension would cost $1.3 million.

Also under the broad bill, schools that were denied a charter designation by local school districts would be able to appeal to the state education department.

Stevens, the committee chairman, expressed concerns with that provision, wondering what the state could do when local districts rejected the schools. He said that would have to be addressed.

Hanley noted that a charter school permit has never been denied, and that drew a sharp response from Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage.

“Then what problem is this fixing since no charter schools have been denied a permit?” Gardner asked.

Hanley said the bill brings integrity to local decision making on charter schools.

In addition, the bill would raise the base student allocation, or per-pupil funding formula, by $85 the next fiscal year, from $5,680 to $5,765, and then by $58 each of the next two years, bringing it to $5,881.

The committee didn’t make any decisions on the bill and will schedule further testimony.

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