Scores worry Natives

Poor results from high school exams prompts call for action

Posted: Sunday, June 25, 2000

When many high school sophomores can't pass the tests needed for a diploma, it's time to panic, says Dennis Demmert, a retired University of Alaska professor.

Demmert was one of about 40 educators at the Southeast Alaska Native Education forum, held in Juneau late last week, when the news broke about the results of the first statewide high school graduation qualifying examination.

State Education Commissioner Rick Cross, in announcing Friday that many students didn't pass one or more of the reading, writing and math portions of the test, said it's not time to panic.

But the poor results -- which haven't yet been broken down by sex, ethnicity or school district -- were some Native educators' fears come true. They know Natives historically have done poorer than the statewide average on standardized tests.

``I'd say it's panic time,'' Demmert told the forum Saturday at Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall.

``There is not much time for those already in the system. The scores we saw, unfortunately, are all too reflective, I would say, of what we will see later on.''

The educators at the forum want Native leaders to meet with Gov. Tony Knowles and Commissioner Cross soon to talk about their concerns. And they want Native parents to tell school boards to be prepared to help failing students with tutoring and other resources.

``Each of us in our communities really needs to approach the school boards and say, `Budget in tutoring,' '' Demmert said. He urged Natives to become ``squeaky wheels'' at school boards.

If the comments at the forum are any indication, the test results will spur some soul-searching throughout the state.

Participants said parents need to be more involved in their children's education, the curricula has to match what's on the test and teachers need to be accountable.

But one experienced educator was less alarmed by the high school test results. The students have many more opportunities to take the test, said Sasha Soboleff, a longtime Juneau-Douglas High School administrator and now director of special programs for the Juneau School District.

Some Juneau sophomores hadn't yet taken the math courses needed to pass the test, he said. Soboleff thinks the scores will go up in future years ``relatively fast.'' He favors after-school and Saturday tutoring for students who do poorly.

Soboleff also puts faith in the Juneau School District's new requirement that each school have an accountability plan for its level of education. He said the high school now finds some algebra students who don't know basic arithmetic.

Ishmael Hope, a recent JDHS graduate, said a lot of sophomores didn't care about the test because they'd have more chances to take it.

Hope thinks students and teachers will get used to the test. But meanwhile the test sacrifices the first classes to take it, because some of those students won't get a diploma, he said. He thinks the state should ease into the standards gradually.

Educators at the meeting had some special concerns about what hinders Native achievement. They felt some teachers might write off Native students because of cultural differences. Native students can be slow to answer questions and seem less eager in the classroom. And Native parents can be less involved in the schools and appear less interested in their children's education because of a legacy of discrimination.

One of the goals of the Southeast Alaska Native Educators' Association is to train new teachers about those differences at school districts' ``in-services.''

When Natives speak of their children's low self-esteem, ``what they are seeing is low esteem on the part of others who don't think they can make it,'' Demmert said.

Ronald Dick, who teaches at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, said Natives should consider creating their own institutions, such as preparatory academies, to support their students.

``I'm not all that confident that we're going to be able to change the direction of the existing system all that much,'' Dick said. ``To add something to what's already existing might help.''

A tribal college could meet some of those needs, including preparing students for the General Educational Development credential -- the GED -- said Andy Hope, who is an interim trustee of the fledgling Southeast Alaska Tribal College.

The tribal college, which would seek federal funds, hasn't begun yet. The interim trustees plan to have a permanent board appointed by the fall. There's no indication of where or when the college would open its doors.

The college could develop transition programs for ``all the kids who have fallen through the black hole of failure,'' Hope said. ``Somebody's got to take responsibility. Somebody's got to clean up the mess, and it's us.''

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