Legislature 2001: Bill alters exit exam

Law would help special-needs kids

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2001

A Republican lawmaker threw a safety net Wednesday to high school juniors expected to fail a mandatory competency test next year.

Sen. Lyda Green, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough Republican, introduced a draft bill to push back the effective date of the test to 2004 and to provide an alternative way for special-needs kids to take the exam. Starting in 2004, students would be required to pass a more basic test to graduate, under the measure.

"It does try to find a solution for every student who might be required to take this test," said Green, chairwoman of the Senate Health Education and Social Services Committee, which is holding hearings on the exam.

The high-stakes exam is a hot issue this session because educators have said many students will not pass the reading, writing and math test. Beginning in 2002, students who fail the exam will not graduate high school, and people across the state have urged lawmakers to push back the effective date, saying students, particularly special-needs kids, aren't ready.

Under Green's bill, students would take the competency test the next two years, but they would not be required to pass the exam to graduate. Instead, schools would indicate on diplomas and transcripts which portions students passed.

Beginning in 2004, the exam would shift to an essential skills test - a concept introduced to the committee last month by an official with the Alaska Department of Education. Deputy Commissioner Bruce Johnson told the panel that a group appointed to refine the exam was starting to question whether the test demanded knowledge students really don't need to succeed in life.

The group is asking "is this skill or piece of knowledge so important that you would deny a diploma?" Johnson told the panel.

The essential skills test envisioned by Green would weed out questions that require knowledge of algebra and other advanced courses, but ensure kids can function "at an introductory level in society," according to the measure. Students would have to pass the test to graduate, but the measure includes a provision allowing the Department of Education to issue waivers permitting some students who failed the test to graduate anyway. The department would write regulations spelling out who would be eligible for the waivers - Green suggested they would apply to new students from other states and kids who failed because of certain circumstances, including major illness.

Another provision would give schools flexibility to accommodate kids with learning disabilities. For example, some special-needs students taking the test would have the option of using tools, including calculators and notes, Green said. The measure would also allow special-needs students to take an alternative test. Committee member Sen. Loren Leman praised that provision, saying the state probably would be legally vulnerable without it.

"There are those who are suggesting and saying we would be sued, and I think that's probably true," said Leman, an Anchorage Republican.

Green said her proposal includes elements of several other bills, including one by Leman to push back the effective date two years. She scheduled a hearing Saturday, noting the draft bill is a work in progress and probably will change. She hopes to pass the bill out of her committee by next week.

Meanwhile, a top administrator from the Juneau School District told the House Education Committee on Wednesday that lawmakers should delay the exit exam at least two years.

Assistant Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the Juneau School Board hadn't taken a position on the issue, but when pressed for her personal opinion, Cowan said the 2002 effective date is unfair to some students.

"We'd be dying on our honor of not changing our mind at the expense of individual students who across the state have not had the opportunities to be successful at this point," Cowan said.

Committee Chairman Rep. Con Bunde said he's concerned if lawmakers delayed the highstakes test, schools would just ask for another delay in a few years.

"If we delay we send a message ... to students who worked hard that we were just kidding," said Bunde, an Anchorage Republican.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.

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