JUNEAU - A high school exit exam is keeping hundreds of Alaska students from earning diplomas and jobs for which they're otherwise qualified, proponents of repealing the test told a state Senate committee Friday.
Educators and parents from around the state testifying in support of a bill to eliminate the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam said the tests also eat up both classroom time and resources for yet another standardized test.
The exams' only defender to testify was Finance Director Eddy Jeans of the Department of Education and Early Development, who relayed the State Board of Education's position. The board sees the test as a crucial accountability tool and wants it to stay in place until there is an alternative.
"It's the hammer in the system. It's the only hammer in the system," Jeans said.
Alaska students are already subject to standardized tests throughout their public education, but those tests are designed to index and track progress or skills. They provide information, but don't hold the individual students accountable, Jeans said.
In contrast, the exit exam guarantees that someone with an Alaska high school diploma has at least minimum competency in reading, writing and math, he said. Eliminating it with no alternative would revert an Alaska high school diploma to the equivalent of a certificate of attendance, Jeans said.
Sen. Bettye Davis, the repeal's sponsor, took issue with that assertion.
"I can't believe this is the glue that's holding the system together," she said. "We're doing a disservice to our children."
Graduation rates have risen since the exit exam requirement took effect in 2004, from 62.9 percent to 67.5 percent last year, according to the Department of Education. Of the 1,549 Alaska seniors who finished the school year in 2008 but didn't receive a diploma, a third did not pass the exit exam. Other unfulfilled graduation requirements, such as credit counts, kept the rest from graduating.
The exit exam has triggered two significant lawsuits. Noon vs. Alaska led to accommodations for special needs students during testing. The judge in Moore vs. Alaska concluded that the combination of an inadequate education in chronically underperforming school districts and the high stakes exit exams wereunconstitutional.
"It is fundamentally unfair ... to hold students accountable for failing this exam when some students in the state have not been accorded a meaningful opportunity to learn the material on the exam," Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason wrote in her 2007 opinion. Remedies in that case are still being addressed.
The Department of Education estimates that eliminating the test would save the state $1.3 million in the first year.
Nationally, 23 states have exit exam policies in place and three more are planning such tests.