Analysts see patterns in exit exam results

Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2001

ANCHORAGE -- A passing grade in geometry gives an Anchorage student only a 50-50 chance of passing the state high school math test, considered the hardest of three tests Alaska students must pass to earn diplomas, a recent study shows.

Three Anchorage School District testing experts analyzed the spring 2000 state high school test results in Anchorage to give teachers and administrators information on which students and subjects they are succeeding with and which need improvement.

The experts determined that a student who has earned A's or B's in freshman and sophomore English is nearly guaranteed to pass the reading test.

Girls performed better overall than boys, who typically outscore them in math.

The researchers, Tom Straugh, Ray Fenton and Fred Stofflet, checked the validity of the tests and also confirmed at least one major problem: The difficulty level in the writing, math and reading exams varied greatly from subject to subject. The three tests, given the first time during the sophomore year, were each based on different expectations of what a high school graduate needs to know.

"If you say math is the right standard, then you'll have to be reading 'Pilgrim's Progress' and the original version of the Bible," said Fenton, the district's director of assessment. "If you say that reading is the right standard, then writing and math are too hard."

Fairbanks educator Nick Stayrook, the state's main testing consultant, agrees.

All three tests are being revised for next year's crop of sophomores. Committees of educators, parents and business people will set new passing scores next summer. This time, Stayrook said, he will ask the three committees -- one for each subject -- to get together before and after they set cutoff scores to agree on proficiency guidelines.

Alaska legislators this year concluded that that tests should measure "minimum competency in essential skills" and added that language to the 1997 law establishing the exams.

The Legislature also delayed the year that students will be required to pass the tests to graduate, from 2002 to 2004. Until then, scores will appear on students' transcripts.

After looking at the characteristics of students who passed and failed the first version of all three tests, the Anchorage testing experts say questions remain. They asked what curriculum changes are needed to help more students reach standards set in the tests; whether rural students would have the same opportunities to take needed classes; and why minorities and boys do not do as well.

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