A House committee is pushing a new version of a bill to delay the high school competency exam - a rewrite supporters say closes some loopholes. But critics say the new version unfairly penalizes kids with learning disabilities.
The House Education Committee on Monday stripped some provisions of a Senate bill passed last week. The Senate bill was written in part to shield the state from legal challenges to the high-stakes exam, scheduled to take effect next year.
The versions are still similar - both push back the effective date of the reading, writing and math test to 2004 and allow kids with learning disabilities to use aids, such as calculators, while taking the exam. However, the House version of SB 133 deletes a safety net for learning-disabled students who fail the test even with the aids.
In the Senate bill, special education students who failed the test still could get a diploma if they completed an alternate assessment program. The measure did not define alternative assessment, leaving that up to state regulators.
Committee chairman Rep. Con Bunde said the House panel deleted that provision fearing the state would write new tests based on lower standards to accommodate kids with special needs - something parents of disabled kids have cautioned against.
"I just received another e-mail from a parent today saying do not allow that to happen because the district will dumb down the standard instead of bringing the kids up to the standard," said Bunde, an Anchorage Republican.
The committee instead included language that ultimately could allow special needs kids who failed the test to receive a diploma by showing a portfolio of work. The portfolio would have to demonstrate the student mastered the state's education standards, Bunde said. The House version directs the state Department of Education to make
recommendations by next year on how such a system would work, but Bunde cautioned the portfolio idea might not pan out.
In that case, special education students and other kids denied a diploma would get a certificate of achievement. Under the measure, the certificate could indicate portions of the test passed and the student's attendance record. Bunde said that's better than giving diplomas to kids who haven't earned them.
"Whether they (students) are special ed or just in the regular classroom, if they're not able to pass the competency test, I don't see how we can say they've been educated to the high school level," he said.
Committee member Rep. Gary Stevens objected to the change, saying it's unfair to special education students.
"We may be really disallowing the majority of special education students from ever getting a diploma, and I do think it does unfairly penalize people with disabilities," said Stevens, a Kodiak Republican.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Gretchen Guess pushed an amendment to put the alternative assessment language back in the bill, but the amendment failed on a tie vote.
The House version also deleted a waiver provision from the Senate bill. The Senate version would allow schools to grant diplomas to some students, even if they failed the test - essentially waiving the requirement that they pass the exam. The Department of Education would decide who would qualify for the waivers, although a prime sponsor in the Senate said waivers probably would apply to students limited by a serious illness or other unforeseen circumstances.
However, Bunde called the waiver provision a "huge loophole," saying the department probably would define it broadly and allow waivers for kids who did not deserve a diploma. Bunde instead wants the department to make recommendations next year on how a waiver system would be applied to only transfer students or those with rare or unusual circumstances. The committee is scheduled to take up the measure again Wednesday.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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