For most of his life, Juneau sophomore Ryan DeLoach has struggled with a learning disability, which he has coped with by using calculators and spell checkers in school.
But when he takes a new competency test required of all students graduating high school in 2002, he will not be allowed to use the extra tools. If he fails the test, he will not receive a diploma.
On Saturday, 16-year-old DeLoach told lawmakers some students aren't ready for the exam and urged them to push back the 2002 effective date to give kids more time to prepare.
"A high school diploma is important to me. I plan to graduate and go to college for a business degree," DeLoach told two legislative committees Saturday. "I feel I will be successful as a business person, but I am concerned that this exit exam may prevent me from reaching my goals."
The House Education Committee and the Senate Health Education and Social Services Committee held a statewide hearing Saturday to take public comment on the exam, which has alarmed some people who fear it asks too much too soon of Alaska students and is too punitive to those who fail.
Only a third of high school sophomores last year passed the exit exam in math. Less than half passed the writing exam, while about three in four passed the reading exam. Those students will be the first required to pass the test to get a diploma. In response, Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, has introduced legislation to delay the effective date to 2006.
Many people who testified Saturday spoke in support of holding schools accountable by requiring a graduation test, but many said the 2002 effective date should be pushed back.
"I'm concerned for students who work hard but are not high achievers or historically do not test well," said Nome mother Mary Miller. "Our students are not prepared."
Juneau special-needs teacher Laury Scandling said two of her junior students have dropped out of school the past eight weeks for fear they won't pass the exam.
"They did not see the point in staying in school if they could not receive a diploma," said Scandling, who added the current exam probably could not withstand a legal challenge from the disabled community.
A Fairbanks woman doubted lawmakers could pass the test and asked them to take it.
Rep. Con Bunde, who sponsored the 1997 bill requiring an exit exam by 2002, responded by saying students have six opportunities to take the test, and they can take it over three years.
"I would suggest even a legislator with three years of practice would be able to pass that test," said Bunde, an Anchorage Republican.
Bunde said he pushed the idea of an exit exam after business leaders and university educators expressed frustration that high school graduates were leaving the public school system unable to read or write.
Anchorage businessman Bill Webb echoed that frustration yesterday and urged the panel to keep the effective date intact. Webb said he has had employees who either write illegibly or can't write at all.
"It's really an emotional trauma for all involved," Webb said. "Failure to ensure basic skills really diminishes their opportunity in employment and in life."
Petersburg school principal Richard Montgomery said delaying the effective date now would be unfair to students who have already passed it.
"They sweated bullets and passed (the test), only for us to tell them we were just kidding?" Montgomery said.
Others spoke in favor of the exam, saying it has forced students to delve into their studies.
"I see students who used to be wild and have a bad attitude are buckling down and getting more serious," said Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School psychologist Doug Wessen, although he supported delaying the effective date.
Lawmakers plan to hold more hearings on the issue over the next several weeks. Bunde, the chairman of the House education committee, said he'll likely hold a hearing Feb. 14 on Knowles' bill to delay the effective date.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.