Top state education officials today urged a panel of lawmakers to push back the effective date of a high school competency test, saying teachers and students aren't ready for the high-stakes exam.
If the Legislature does not postpone the effective date to 2006, many students are in jeopardy of not passing, said Shirley Holloway, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
"I think the journey is the right journey ... I think we're on the right path," Holloway told the House Special Committee on Education, which held its first hearing today on a bill by the governor to postpone the test four years. "But I don't want to be unfair to students because the system wasn't ready."
Under current law, high school seniors will be required to pass the exam in reading, writing and math starting next year. The law gives them 11 opportunities to take the test, but if they ultimately fail, they will not receive a high school diploma. The prospect has concerned educators and parents because many students have failed portions of the exam. Out of 9,000 students scheduled to take the test as seniors next year, only 4,000 have passed the math portion so far.
Holloway said schools need more time to align curriculum to meet the higher standards and to better prepare students, especially kids with special needs and those new to the state. Rep. Joe Green challenged the notion of delaying the exam, saying schools have had many years to get students up to speed, and at some point the state has to accept that some kids will fail.
"I'm concerned about going on and on because we've been on and on," said Green, an Anchorage Republican.
Most people who spoke today supported a delay in the effective date, but one exception was Tanya Totemoff - the only student to testify. The high school junior said she took the exam for the first time last year and thought it was easy.
"For most students, it was stuff they should know. It wasn't above anyone's level, I don't think," said Totemoff, who attends a school in Tatitlek, a village near Anchorage.
Kodiak parent Mary Holden urged the committee to postpone the test, saying families need to feel the process is meeting their kids' needs.
"If we do not take time to put all the necessary parts into place, then we're punishing the kids," Holden said.
Meanwhile, an attorney with the Alaska Department of Law warned the committee and a Senate panel earlier this week that the 2002 effective date might be difficult to defend in court. Assistant Attorney General Phillip Reeves said if a lawsuit were filed challenging the exam, the state would have to show schools gave students a fair opportunity to learn the material on the test. That would be difficult to show for next year's seniors because they never took the benchmark exams, which the state began administering last spring, Reeves said.
The benchmark tests are given to elementary and middle school students to measure whether they are on track to pass the exit exam. The benefit of the benchmark tests is teachers can intervene to help students who are struggling, and the state can show through later tests that the students learned the material, Reeves said. The problem is the benchmark tests wasn't in place for the Class of 2002, he said.
"That's our greatest exposure," Reeves told the Senate Health, Education and Social Services Committee on Monday. "Those students can legitimately claim they didn't have real specific notice of the requirements."
Meanwhile, the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education told the Senate panel that a group of 52 teachers, parents and other people refining the exam might recommend significant changes to it.
The agency's Bruce Johnson told the committee that the so-called content-review group is wondering whether some test questions demand knowledge or skills students really need to succeed in life.
He said the group will decide in April whether to recommend emphasizing some standards over others. If the state school board adopted such a recommendation, the state might not have a revised test before 2004, said Johnson. If the test were changed, it wouldn't be fair to impose a different test on the Class of 2002, he said.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.