Exit exam process must be fair

My turn

Posted: Monday, February 05, 2001

I am a product of Alaska's schools from kindergarten through graduate school and I have two children in high school, both of whom should pass the qualifying exam.

For six years, I have taught in a program at JDHS for students at risk of not graduating because of their special needs. I am speaking on behalf of those students you may never hear from.

Could you have been one of them? Is balancing your checkbook the pinnacle of your math wizardry? Do you remember everything on TV and relish a high level of debate but get lost in written materials?

Those are the kinds of kids who won't be getting a diploma in 16 months and for most, a diploma is a precious goal.

Last semester two of my juniors dropped out, afraid they cannot pass all three parts of the exam by graduation. They did not see the point in staying in school if they could not earn a diploma.

For 25 years prior to becoming a teacher, I worked in the public and private sectors and I have taught college, so I have a strong understanding of what graduates should be able to do. I don't oppose measuring proficiency. I don't think anyone does.

However, every Alaskan, particularly policymakers and employers, should look at the sample exam (www.eed.state.ak.us) and ask: Is this important for kids to know?

While delaying the consequences of the exam may be necessary to ensure the test is measuring what we want it to measure and to provide kids get the extra help they need, there are some fundamental issues that must be addressed regardless of when the exam is implemented: Brain research, remediation and denial of diplomas.

We know that children who experience chronic stress from poverty, chaos, abuse or neglect suffer a withering of the transmitters in the brain. They never fully catch up with their better-cared-for peers. We also know that some children have permanent, brain-based learning disabilities that mean they never will be able to spell or punctuate or order numbers correctly. For them, going to school is like having a MacIntosh disk inserted into an IBM brain.

Federal law requires that schools provide accommodations to help these kids. The exit exam does not fully allow these lawfully required modifications and I am doubtful the current exam could withstand a legal challenge from the disabilities community.

Second, there's a serious need for remediation funding. In a typical urban high school, a teacher may have 25 to 35 students in each class, learning at different rates. A certain amount of material has to be covered in a finite amount of time. For a whole lot of reasons (most of which are out of the control of the teacher), some kids inevitably don't learn as quickly as others. Meeting standards takes different kids different amounts of time, but additional classes and summer school costs money. Districts already are squeezed. Remediation means eliminating something else or charging families hundreds of dollars.

Finally, I am concerned about the punitive nature of the exam. To say to a young person who has had excellent attendance, who has at least average grades, and who has passed two parts of the exam, but repeatedly is within a few points of passing the third, that they cannot have a high school diploma seems unjust. There will be hundreds of hard-working students in that situation in 16 months. To hand them a certificate of attendance suggests they did nothing but show up - and that's not fair.

An "endorsement diploma" could be established to reflect which portions of the exam the student passed. Thus, one might earn a fully or partially endorsed diploma. Then it's up to employers to ask what endorsements the student earned.

If we are serious about kids mastering certain proficiencies, then we must be serious about providing them the help they need, be fair in accommodating learning differences, and be just in permitting diplomas which reflect their competencies.

Laury Scandling has taught at UAS or in the Juneau School District for nearly 10 years. She delivered these comments to the Alaska House Special Committee on Education on Jan. 27.

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