Juneau-Douglas High School is making computers available some evenings and weekends so students can practice for the upcoming Alaska High School Qualifying Graduation Examination. English teachers are letting students take all three practice exams in class.
``Let's get the experience out there, so they can get their feet wet,'' said Principal Sasha Soboleff.
The state's high school sophomores will take tests in reading, writing and math on March 7, 8 and 9. They need to pass all three tests to get a high school diploma. Students who fail will get a certificate of attendance.
The tests are offered twice a year and students who fail may retake any tests for up to three years after they leave high school.
JDHS students didn't seem too concerned recently, but that doesn't mean they like the tests.
``I'm not really worried about it,'' said sophomore Willy Dodd. ``It doesn't look like it's going to be that hard, the basics probably. I feel pretty prepared.''
Sophomore Andrew Vallejo said a practice math test covered basic material he's been learning in class. He thinks the test isn't necessary because students still have to earn their course credits before graduating.
``If we pass all of our classes and get all of our credits, there's no reason for it.''
Sophomore Rhett Ridgeway is concerned about placing such importance on one high-stakes test.
``There's some people that can't take tests very well, and that decides their whole future,'' he said.
The Legislature passed a law in 1997 requiring the test. It's intended to assess whether students have a basic competence in English and math.
Employers and universities were saying high school graduates were functionally illiterate, said Rep. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican who spearheaded the effort to pass the law.
JDHS Principal Soboleff said preparing for the test hasn't caused any last-minute changes in the way JDHS teaches students this year.
``For the last two years, we have really aligned the instructional classes to the standards,'' he said. ``For JDHS, it's not a new thing, and it doesn't make us do things differently, because we were already in the direction of standards.''
Hoonah schools superintendent Bill Walz said his district also has been working toward the standards, but he's concerned the test was implemented too soon for students who are now in high school.
``It still is probably not enough time for a student who has been in the system for 10 years,'' Walz said.
Schools need time to align the curriculum to the standards, adapt or buy new materials and train teachers, he said. ``You can't take back 10 years of education.''
But Bunde said schools would always want more time. Meanwhile, students would be missing the value of having a diploma that means something.
The state won't set the tests' pass/fail levels until summer, and results won't be known until fall. After this first go-round, results should be available within 60 days.
The big questions are how many students will fail and how to help them pass.
Soboleff isn't sure the test results will produce a need for remedial sections, but he said there could be more tutoring before and after school.
Walz, of Hoonah, is concerned rural districts, where funding was cut in the latest state education funding formula, will need the most help. He also thinks students who do poorly will have to spend time in remedial classes and won't be able to attend electives such as vocational classes.
Gov. Tony Knowles has asked lawmakers to increase the amount the state gives school districts for his Quality Schools Initiative - including the high school test - from $16 per student to $52.
But Bunde would rather wait for the test results. And he pointed out that sophomores have plenty of time to retake sections they don't pass. For sophomores, the test is a reality check, not a failure, he said.
Another unanswered question is what score will be needed to pass the tests. Other states have backed off academic standards when they saw how many students failed high-stakes tests.
But Bunde and state education officials said the process of setting the passing score will remove politics from the equation.
``The bottom line here is that when we set the cut score, we're not going to look at how that's going to impact the number of students who pass the test,'' said Harry Gamble, spokesman for the state Department of Education. ``We're actually going to look at what level of standard we want students to know to get a high school diploma.''
Committees of about 20 educators and members of the public will recommend the ``cut scores'' for each of the three tests. The final decision is in the hands of the state Board of Education.
The committee members will take the tests themselves and link each question to specific state performance standards.
Afterward, the committee members will have a stack of the tests' questions in order from easiest to hardest, based on how many students answered the question correctly. But they won't know how many students that is.
Then members will literally place a bookmark between the two questions they believe distinguish passing from failing. After doing that as individuals, they'll meet to reach a consensus.
JDHS students may use the school library's computers to access practice tests 7 to 9 p.m. Thursdays to March 2, and 3 to 5 p.m. Sundays to March 5.
The practice tests and a wealth of information about them can be found through the school district's Web site by going to Hot Links at juneauempire.com.
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