Legislators question Parnell's scholarship test requirements

Posted: Friday, January 29, 2010

Gov. Parnell is making his proposed scholarship plan tougher to qualify for, which may also make it harder to pass through the Legislature.

When Parnell announced his Governor's Performance Scholarships last year, there were already questions about whether small, rural schools would be able to provide the required classes to qualify their students for the tuition scholarships.

The bill Parnell submitted to create the scholarships would now also require a minimum test score on a college entrance examination, such as the SAT or ACT, in order to qualify. The minimum score would be set through regulation at a later time.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, questioned whether such tests were a good measure for awarding scholarships.

"I have an inherent fear of standardized tests" as a factor in awarding scholarships, Kerttula said.

She questioned whether students in all Alaska schools had the same opportunity to take advanced classes and get a high quality education as those in the state's best schools.

Parnell's spokeswoman referred questions about the program to Larry LeDoux, commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development.

LeDoux said the newly revealed restriction on the scholarships would prevent grade inflation and pressure on teachers to give higher grades to make more students eligible for money.

"It's part of the design to ensure the integrity of the process," LeDoux said.

He said he did not know how many students would be excluded from the scholarships because of the test requirement.

Schools in many rural communities around the state are struggling, and Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, questioned whether those students could fairly compete with those in the top schools in Anchorage or other larger cities.

State education officials don't have comparisons of how Alaska high schools do on college entrance exams, but the No Child Left Behind law's measure of Adequate Yearly Progress shows that not all Alaska schools are equal, he said.

"You just have to look at AYP, the schools that underperform there are predominately in Alaska Native communities," Hoffman said.

Hoffman co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which Parnell's proposal must pass through.

LeDoux asserts the new requirement will be fair to all students.

"What limits a child is their attitude and their willingness to work for their education," he said.

LeDoux said that all schools have access to advanced classes, but acknowledged that in many cases those classes were only available online.

Kerttula said online classes "aren't the same thing" as traditional instruction.

"They may work for some people, but they're not the same thing as having a teacher right there," she said.

LeDoux maintained that the GPS program would not favor big urban schools, saying that students could succeed no matter where the were.

He did acknowledge that there were differences in school quality throughout the state.

"Certainly it will present challenges in rural Alaska, I will not deny that," he said.

Parnell's plan has been questioned by legislators since he released it last fall, but the testing requirement wasn't publicized until the bill was proposed.

In his State of the State address last week, Parnell noted the GPS qualifications he was proposing: "Four years each of math, science, and English and three years of social studies. If a student maintains a 'C+' average but completes this more rigorous curriculum, they will earn 50 percent of their tuition; a 'B' average will earn them 75 percent tuition and with an 'A' average while taking this tougher curriculum, a young person will earn 100 percent tuition for an in-state university or job-training program."

He didn't mention the new testrequirement.

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the requirement was not new, and while the governor had not mentioned it previously it was in the bill submitted at the start of the session.

Parnell's program would be funded with a $400 million endowment-style savings account, and would provide scholarships of as much as $4,755 per year. The Education Department estimates that 2,300 of 8,000 high school graduates each year would be eligible.

Alaska students already have access to a merit-based scholarship offered by the University of Alaska. Students in the top 10 percent of their classes receive scholarships at UA schools.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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