Exit exam fairness

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2001

Gov. Knowles, the Governor's Education Funding Task Force and the Department of Education and Early Development have recommended that the effective date of the law requiring Alaska students to pass an exit exam in order to receive a high school diploma be delayed to 2006.

The rest of us - current and future students, parents, taxpayers, educators and employers - owe it to ourselves to decide if the request is valid.

A natural response is to wonder if educational account-

ability ever will be implemented in Alaska or if accountability merely will be debated endlessly and postponed perpetually. Many of us who have watched the overall quality of education slip for at least a generation are impatient for an educational revolution.

We want students to learn so that their knowledge and reasoning powers can be applied toward the enrichment and function of an insatiably challenging society. Something is wrong if parents and grandparents know why wars were fought, how democracies and economies were built, how diseases are being conquered, and how frontiers were pushed to the heavens but our children and grandchildren do not - or even that they should.

Our impatience became manifest in 1997 with the passage of the law requiring the exit exams. Now, four years later and one year shy of the "high stakes" exams taking effect, we are being asked to wait for five more years.

The temptation is to criticize the education system for allowing all this to happen. That presumes the education system is beyond our control. It was not just the educators who let the delivery of knowledge become so haphazard that standards don't exist and learning is not meaningfully and uniformly measurable. If the system really needs five more years before a diploma should be earned through a demonstration of subject mastery, how painful it is to ponder the value of today's diplomas.

There is, however, a more important consideration. We must not permit our impatience to steamroll our sense of fairness. If we are going to develop and implement standards and begin to measure performance meaningfully, fairness dictates that we agree on a starting point for change and that we allow enough time for change to be assimilated.

Having tolerated a flawed system, it would be wrong for us to subject students who are nearing graduation to standards to which they were exposed only at the 11th hour - or in some cases not at all.

Change has to start in the lower grades and the delivery of information has to be tracked through periodic benchmark testing. An exit exam should measure mastery of information to which students have been exposed for most of their elementary and secondary school experience.

Fair is fair. The fault is not the students'. Five more years is not an eternity. If we stay as engaged as the situation demands, the time will pass quickly and the results will be rewarding.

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