I am writing to correct statements made in the "My Turn" column of Feb. 28. Mr. Michael Balonek, a VISTA volunteer who has been in Juneau for four months, wrote that it is unfair to test low-income students with the Alaska Benchmark Exams. I commend Mr. Balonek for his commitment to society and his volunteer efforts. However, I take issue with his statements and conclusions. Beyond being false, they are hurtful and misleading.
First, he stated that "100 percent of the students who qualify for free or reduced lunches" (the way low-income students are identified) in a Juneau school failed "Alaska's benchmark exam." That is not correct information according to the Juneau School District's own data.
Mr. Balonek goes on to assert that it is the tests that are at fault because "standards-based tests are faulty measures of intelligence" and measure socio-economic status instead. He fears "that in a few years, when Alaska's benchmark exams become high stakes" that all low-income students will be denied diplomas and be doomed to low-wage work. He feels that we are punishing children with "meaningless and biased tests" because of their socio-economic status. While I congratulate Mr. Balonek for his involvement in important issues, he needs to be better informed before he makes such baseless accusations.
There are three Alaska Benchmark Exams, which are given in third, sixth, and eighth grades. They are not intelligence tests, were never meant to be and are not being used as such. They measure, with a great deal of scientific validity and reliability, whether and to what extent students have learned the things that Alaskans have agreed are important for children to know at certain stages of their education. I encourage Mr. Balonek and all those who are interested in education to learn the facts about the State Standards and Alaska's assessment system at the Department of Education and Early Development's Web site: www.eed.state.ak.us.
Mr. Balonek goes on to assert that the benchmarks will soon be "high stakes." They will not. Alaska statutes do not deny a grade promotion based on a student's failure of a benchmark exam. These tests are given to students to assess whether they have learned what they need to know as they progress through school, much like spelling tests or math quizzes are given to assess particular skills. They are used only to inform the student, parents and teachers about where the child's weaknesses and strengths are so effective remediation can occur.
Beyond the factual errors inherent in this article, I am most distressed by Mr. Balonek's apparent point of view that children from low-income homes cannot learn to high standards. I am appalled by this view! Not only does this view damn children by its low expectations, it has been proven by research to be wrong! When provided with quality teachers and focused instruction, even the most disadvantaged student can learn. Mr. Balonek would provide a disadvantaged student with a diploma that purports to show he/she has learned the essential skills necessary to get a job or go to college when that is not the case. How would that situation provide the student with a high-paying job? How would that prepare the student for the rigor of college courses? It would not, and is certainly not a kindness to the student.
Mr. Balonek exhorts teachers to refuse to assess their students. Does he include spelling tests and math quizzes? He suggests teachers refuse to come to work in protest over these tests. How does he suppose the children will be taught if they do? Who will provide the remediation for those students who have done poorly on the benchmark tests? It's always easier to not require the best from yourself or others. However, as many of we parents know, that's not what is best for our children.
Rep. Con Bunde is the chairman of the House Special Committee on Education.