Disabled students sue over exit exam

Students with disabilities flunking test at 3:1 ratio

Posted: Wednesday, March 17, 2004

ANCHORAGE - A California law firm specializing in disability cases filed a proposed class action lawsuit in federal court in Anchorage on Tuesday charging that Alaska's new graduation qualifying test puts disabled students at a disadvantage.

Sid Wolinsky, an attorney with Oakland-based Disability Rights Advocates, said the Alaska high school graduation qualifying exam discriminates against disabled students in violation of federal and state laws.

The nonprofit firm sued the state in U.S. District Court on behalf of Alaska disabled students, who are flunking the three-part test at a ratio of 3-to-1, according to Wolinsky. The listed plaintiffs are five high school students and the Learning Disabilities Association of Alaska.

"We're not seeking to stop the whole test, we're not seeking to set aside standards, we're not seeking damages," he said. "We're seeking that the safeguards required by both federal and Alaska law be implemented."

State education officials said they had not yet reviewed the 38-page lawsuit and could not comment. They also plan to review state laws and regulations before responding.

"Obviously we're concerned any time the state Board of Education and the Department of Education are implicated in not serving all of Alaska's children well," department spokesman Harry Gamble said.

Wolinsky said the Alaska case is similar to lawsuits the firm filed in Oregon and California. But while those lawsuits were filed before exit exams were instituted, the Alaska case is the first to emerge after exams are already underway. All three parts of the Alaska test already have been administered. Students who flunk cannot receive a diploma.

The exam, which originally was approved by the state Legislature in 1997, assesses proficiency in reading, writing and math. Lawmakers have since amended the statute and delayed the effective date until 2004.

"We don't have the results of the last test yet, but as of February, with only one of three parts of the test left to go, over 600 disabled seniors were at risk of not getting diplomas," Wolinsky said.

The Oregon case was filed in 2000 and quickly resolved when the state agreed to enlist a national panel of education and disability experts to devise measures to "protect children with disabilities" in standard tests. Those measures were put in place in 2001, Wolinsky said.

"It's working beautifully," he said. "We're pleased, educators are pleased, the state school board is pleased. It's a win-win for everyone."

The California lawsuit was filed in 2001, raising the same issues about exams slated to begin this year. School officials there have delayed giving the exams until at least 2006, but the issue has not been resolved, Wolinsky said.

"Our lawsuit is dormant there, but it's about to be reactivated," he said.

The Alaska plaintiffs seek the same three remedies successfully used in Oregon that comply with protection laws for the disabled:

• Create "reasonable accommodations" for disabled students customized for specific needs. For example, devise a read-aloud format for children with dyslexia or grant extra test time for students experiencing fatigue.

• Develop alternative ways of assessing students who can't do well on tests. For example, judge them on such means as grades, comments in class and performance on projects.

• Set policies to ensure students are not tested on subjects they never learned.

Wolinsky said plaintiffs also want a respite for disabled students who have fared poorly in the present exam.

"They're in agony," he said. "They can't apply to colleges, they don't know if they can get jobs. You can't even work as a janitor in most school districts without a high school diploma."

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