The state is proposing more ways to accommodate students with disabilities when they take the high school exit exam.
The state requires all students to pass the Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Examination, which tests reading, writing and math, before they can receive a diploma.
The exit exam is a great source of anxiety to parents of children with disabilities, said Don Douglas, co-chairperson of the Juneau School District's Special Education Parent Advisory Council.
"It's been a very big concern for parents," he said. "Parents of mainstream kids can be concerned enough. When you have a special-needs child and they're facing this high-stakes test and there's no accommodation to give them a level playing field in light of their disability, that's very alarming."
The Class of 2004 was the first class to have to meet the requirement. They started taking the test as sophomores and were able to retake it twice a year after that.
But the state exempted special-education students for this year after disability advocates filed a class-action lawsuit in March charging that the exam discriminates.
In the exam given to sophomores in the spring of 2004, for example, about 70 percent of all the students passed the reading test, but only 21.6 percent of special-ed students passed it.
In Juneau, only about 14 of roughly 325 regular-ed students in the Class of 2004 didn't pass all three tests by graduation day. But 15 of 26 special-ed students in the class didn't pass all of the tests, the district reported late in the school year.
The state and the plaintiffs are still trying to negotiate a settlement to the lawsuit. It's not clear whether the proposed regulations will meet enough of the plaintiffs' concerns.
Some of the proposed accommodations - such as allowing students to use a spell-checking function on a computer and to have the test read aloud to them - were cited in the plaintiffs' lawsuit.
Plaintiffs' attorneys from Disability Rights Advocates of Oakland, Calif., declined an interview with the Empire. Officials said they would submit formal written comments to the state Department of Education. A spokesman for the Disability Law Center of Alaska was not immediately available for comment.
The state Department of Education has allowed special-ed students to use what are called accommodations and modifications on the exit exam. The proposed rules expand the options, said Les Morse, director of assessment and accountability for the agency.
The proposed rules also provide for accommodations to students who don't know English well.
Accommodations are changes in the testing situation so that the test measures the student's ability, not the disability. Examples are allowing frequent breaks during the test, administering the test in a separate location, and allowing students to ask for clarifications of the test directions.
The accommodations must be part of the students' Individualized Education Program as developed by teachers, specialists and parents. They don't require prior approval by the state Department of Education. Students can use accommodations the first time they take the exam.
A significant new accommodation is to let special-ed students use basic calculators, Morse said. The department reasoned that students would still need to understand the processes of solving math problems, even if they used a calculator.
"You don't want an accommodation to give an unfair advantage," Morse said. "You want to level the playing field."
Modifications change the setting, timing, presentation or response format of the tests. They don't change the questions, or the number of the questions, or the score needed to pass.
Special-ed students can take a modified test only after they have failed the test without modifications. The state Department of Education must approve modifications on a case by case basis.
An example of a modification, such as for a student with severe dyslexia, is to read aloud to a student the reading test. A modification like that still tests the student's ability to understand the questions, if not to actually read them.
"It simply allows you some additional tools that are compromises, but aren't compromises to the extent that we think you ought not to be able to get a diploma," Morse said.
Allowing modifications only after the student has failed the test once has been a philosophical issue, said Jerry Sjolander, executive director of special education for the Anchorage School District.
The lawsuit refers to the provision as a needless humiliation.
It can be useful for special-ed students to take the test and see what it's like and what modifications will be useful, Sjolander said. On the other hand, it can be dispiriting to fail a test.
"Some people feel it damages students' egos and no one should have to fail first in order for the system to look at a different approach," Sjolander said.
The proposed rules also create a nonstandardized exit exam, which officials said will apply to very few students. Instead of taking a test, such students submit a collection of their school work to demonstrate their proficiency.
Morse, the Department of Education's assessment director, was hard-pressed to think of an example of who would qualify. One example might be a blind student who also had damaged hands and couldn't use Braille, he said.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.