Disabled students able to graduate without exit exam

More than 500 students will be affected by agreement in lawsuit

Posted: Thursday, April 08, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Alaska high school seniors with disabilities will not need to pass the high school exit exam to graduate this spring.

More than 500 students will be affected immediately by an agreement reached Wednesday in a class-action lawsuit that charged that Alaska's exit exam puts disabled students at a disadvantage.

Attorney General Gregg Renkes and Education Commissioner Roger Sampson said the stipulation signed Wednesday allows disabled students in the 2004 class to graduate while negotiations proceed.

"The agreement will allow both sides to negotiate in good faith the issues raised in the suit to reach a resolution that is fair for all involved," Sampson said.

The lawsuit was filed March 16 in U.S. District Court by a California firm specializing in disability cases. Sid Wolinsky, an attorney with Oakland-based Disability Rights Advocates, said the Alaska high school graduation qualifying exam discriminates against disabled students, who were flunking the three-part test at a ratio of 3-to-1.

The lawsuit claims that the test as implemented causes students to fail no matter how smart and hardworking they are.

The federal court has confirmed the stipulation, said plaintiffs' attorney Joan Wilson of the firm Davis Wright Tremaine.

About 18,000 students in all grades in Alaska work with Individualized Education Programs under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or the Rehabilitation Plan of 1973. Any of the students who took the exit exam are included in the class action.

According to the stipulation, none of the plaintiffs will be denied a diploma this spring if they have met all other requirements.

Sampson said the state and plaintiffs' lawyers will enter negotiations, starting May 18, to try to resolve issues raised in the lawsuit. Progress will be reported to federal court no later than July 9.

Plaintiffs' attorneys praised Renkes, Sampson and other state officials for a "constructive approach to resolving this very time-sensitive issue on a rapid but well thought-out basis."

"It is our hope to find a legislative, administrative or negotiated solution in this short timeframe that will prevent the High School Graduation Qualifying Examination from being an insurmountable barrier to all Alaska's students with disabilities," Wilson said.

The Legislature is considering several bills that would modify exit exam requirements.

The attorneys said one of their clients, Chugiak High School senior Doug Mate, was relieved by the agreement. Mate has a learning disability in math. He is registered to enter the Army in June but could have been denied immediate admission, and a scholarship, without the diploma, said his mother, Cynthia Mate.

When the lawsuit was filed, Wolinsky said the Alaska case is similar to lawsuits the firm filed in Oregon and California.

The exit exam was approved by the Legislature in 1997. It assesses proficiency in reading, writing and math.

Lawmakers subsequently amended the requirement and delayed the effective date until this spring.

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

• "Reasonable accommodations" for disabled students, customized for specific needs. That could mean a read-aloud format for children with dyslexia or extra test time for students experiencing fatigue.

• Alternative ways of assessing students who cannot do well on tests. That could mean judging them on grades, comments in class and performance on projects.

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

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