Setting the bar lower

New high school exit exam now focuses on the basics

Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2002

Don't be surprised if high school sophomores do better on this spring's exit exam. The state has created a new test that emphasizes basic skills, and is likely to change the passing scores, as well.

New exam alters emphasis on standards





Revise writing

Critique arguments





summarize information

Support assertions

Source: Alaska Dept. of Education

State education officials say the new test measures essential skills needed in daily life. But some people are concerned that a basic test won't challenge most students and spur them to improve.

The exit exam was intended to focus on essential skills, not be a college entrance exam, said Mark Leal, assessment administrator for the state Department of Education.

"These are the things we demand that all students know to get a high school diploma," he said.

Committees composed largely of educators and a smattering of business people and students met last spring to review the reading, writing and math tests that make up the Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Examination. Students must pass the test to get a high school diploma.

Similar committees are expected to meet this summer to set the passing scores for the new tests.

The new test, which will be given for the first time in March, asks fewer questions overall and de-emphasizes geometry and algebra, knowledge of literary techniques and the ability to critique written arguments.

"One of my concerns is that the bar will be lowered to a point where 80 percent, or some other 'acceptable' percentage, pass in order to make people feel good about themselves and make the schools look good," said Alan Degener, a math teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School.

The test results of sophomores, who aren't prepared for the math test by then, skew the results downward and look bad to the public, he said.

The original test was first given to sophomores in the spring of 2000 because at the time a state law required students, beginning with the Class of 2002, to pass it to get a diploma. Faced with mixed results from the first two years, lawmakers last year pushed back the effective date to 2004. This year's sophomores are the Class of 2004.

The new law also clarifies that the exit exam's purpose is to "focus on minimum competencies in essential skills" in English and math "that a student should know in order to function in our society."

Rep. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican who spearheaded the first bill for an Alaska exit exam, said all high school graduates should be able to do everyday tasks such as read a newspaper, fill out a job application, calculate the discount on prices and evaluate the interest rates on credit cards.

Bunde said the new reading and writing tests are on a seventh-grade level, and the math test focuses more on basic skills, but he said "that's basic literacy."

But what gets tested is what gets taught and learned, said Chuck Cohen, a member of the Juneau School Board.

A test of the basics doesn't force average students to improve, Cohen said. The 50 percent of students in the middle have been sliding by and not getting a solid education, he said.

"The original attempt was an attempt to raise the level of expectations as well as performance, both of the students and the institution," Cohen said. "It was a laudable goal. I was disappointed (the state) chose to back off."

In 2000, three-quarters of the test-takers statewide passed the original reading test, half passed the writing test and a third passed the math test. The following year the percentage of proficient students dropped to two-thirds in reading, was level in writing and rose in math to 44 percent.

Rural students, Natives and students from poor families passed the test at much lower rates than other categories of students, according to state reports.

"We just got to the point where it was politically unacceptable to have that big an urban-rural divide," Cohen said.

But Gregg Erickson, editor of the Alaska Budget Report, said the cutoff point for passing the test was "clearly way too high" and unrealistic.

"It's unfair to the students to hold them to a standard that the institutions are not meeting," he said.

Tanner Boggs, a junior at JDHS, said he still has to pass the math test, but he supports the original test and said it made him take school more seriously.

"I would want somebody who knew algebra and geometry to work for me," he said. "I think the test is pretty good."

The new math test will have fewer questions about geometry and topics such as linear and quadratic equations. It will ask more questions about basic skills such as numeration, measurement, computation and estimation.

The new reading test will no longer ask students to analyze literary techniques. More questions will ask students to summarize a text, but fewer questions will ask students to assess evidence in an argument.

The new writing test asks fewer questions about using the conventions of standard English and on revising writing to improve it.

Kenny Bryant, business manager for the western North Slope for Phillips Alaska, was on the committee that reviewed the math questions. He said committee members struggled with how many of the state standards should be tested. "At times it was difficult to tell if we were setting up a high school exit exam or a college entrance exam."

But not everyone goes on to college, and there are tests, such as the SATs, for college-bound students, Bryant said.

But some argue that the standards for being prepared for college and for career-track jobs out of high school aren't so different.

"The definition of basic skills has changed because of the information technology component of all work," said Sheila Byrd, director of the Washington, D.C.,-based American Diploma Project, which reviews exit exam standards.

"Geometry and algebraic problem-solving are such important topics for Alaskans," said Degener, the Juneau teacher. "There are plenty of algebraic and geometric problems that people solve in everyday life that could be included in the exam. I would hate to see them reduced to the point of triviality."

Louise Lazur, vice president of administration for the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau, served on the writing test committee.

"My desire is to be able to hire a high school graduate who can work on a project and then write a memo on what the person has done, using complete sentences, correct grammar and subject agreement with verbs, and clear thought in writing," Lazur said.

Some of the questions on the original test were "esoteric," she said. But she wouldn't say the new tests are easier. "We weren't making it easier. We were making it more appropriate."

States have wrestled with what is an appropriate high school exit exam. By 2001, 18 states required tests for graduation, and five others gave an exam but hadn't required it yet for a diploma, according to the publication Education Week.

Some states have pushed back their tests' effective dates, and California eliminated some of the more challenging algebra questions after many students did poorly on a trial test, according to Achieve Inc., a nonprofit group that promotes the standards movement.

But Kathy Christie of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States said states want to be sure students' coursework matches what's on the tests, and that early poor scores don't destroy public support for standards.

"There seems to be a consensus out there that states are backing down and I don't see it," she said. "They're being careful. They're being cautious."

Some states have tried a gradual approach in setting the bar for high school graduates. Texas began in 1994 with fairly easy tests, and then ratcheted up the difficulty. Over time, Texas education officials claim, more students are passing harder tests.

That's the plan in Alaska, too, state education officials said.

The Legislature asked the Department of Education to focus the test on essential skills. But the test and its passing scores will be under continual review, said department spokesman Harry Gamble.

"The first thing we're trying to do is get every child up to those standards, which is a very ambitious goal and a promise Alaska has not made before," Gamble said. "Then we can start to raise the bar as time goes on."

Not everyone is sure that will happen.

"The test will just get easier and easier until people can pass it," said Doug Jones, a JDHS senior who is the student representative to the Juneau School Board. "That's all that's going to happen."

Eric Fry can be reached at

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