Reactions mixed to delaying statewide graduation exam

Posted: Sunday, October 08, 2000

Juneau-Douglas High School student Henry Johnson isn't convinced future employers will wonder whether he knows the Pythagorean theorem. But last week he joined other juniors statewide in retaking all or part of the new high school graduation exam.

As state law now stands, Johnson won't get a diploma if he doesn't pass the test eventually. "Just those words were chilling down your spine," he said.

He's a member of the Class of 2002, the first that must pass the test in reading, writing and math to get a diploma. But state education officials, concerned that students aren't well-prepared, may ask the Legislature to put off the test's effective date, which is set by statute.

Gov. Tony Knowles, at a meeting of educators Sept. 30 in Girdwood, proposed moving back the exam to an undecided date. The state Board of Education will consider a similar resolution at its December meeting.

"I'm not sure we have identified ways for all children to succeed yet. We've only had a year and a half to implement this law," said state school board member Paula Pawlowski of Anchorage.

Rep. Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican who chairs the House Health, Education and Social Services Committee, said he'd be willing to delay the test by one year only. "I don't want this first crop of kids unduly penalized for what may be inadequacies in the system," he said.

One-quarter of sophomores statewide failed the reading test, half failed the writing test and two-thirds failed the math portion when the test was first given last March.

Juneau students did a bit better than the statewide average in reading and writing, and notably better in math. But some Bush school districts had failing rates of 70 percent to 100 percent in one or more parts of the test.

Schools have known for three years the test was coming and students have several years to pass it, said Rep. Con Bunde, the Anchorage Republican who wrote the statute that required the test.

"It's time to get on with the project," he said. "I just strongly resist the notion that we're going to send four more years of high school seniors out into the world with a high school diploma that doesn't mean anything."

Reactions in Southeast are mixed.

Delaying the test would be more fair to students because they would benefit from benchmark tests that identify deficiencies in earlier grades, said Karen Cleary, assistant superintendent in Klawock, which has 60 high school students.

"I think it's a fair test if the students are given enough time to learn the skills, now that we know what the skills are that they're focusing on," she said.

JDHS Principal Deb Morse said she wasn't sure what advantage there'd be for Juneau in moving back the date, although she recognized state officials must consider all of Alaska.

"If you think about waiting 'til everybody's prepared, you might be waiting a long time," she said.

The current timeline put the first class at a disadvantage. The sophomores who took the test last March didn't know whether they had passed until this fall -- too late to take summer remedial classes and after they had scheduled their junior year's first-semester classes. The next opportunity to take the test was last week.

"There wasn't a lot of time to prepare for our next test," said JDHS junior Jessica Hahnlen, who retook the math test.

Moving back the date would let teachers target what the tests focus on, Cleary said.

Melanie Maus, a JDHS junior who retook the math test, said most of the material was covered in classes. "But there's a lot of stuff we just barely went over and we're expected to know it," she said.

Cleary said teachers need time to work with student deficiencies identified in benchmark tests of students in grades three, six and eight.

Statewide averages of the first tests last March showed high levels of proficiency in reading and writing. But 59 percent of eighth-graders weren't proficient in math. In Juneau, 10 percent of eighth-graders weren't proficient in reading, 29 percent in writing and 48 percent in math.

Les Morse, principal at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, said moving back the high school test could reduce some of the urgency to meet standards. "For us, I feel like it's a good accountability measure, and it's one we are adequately preparing students for," he said.

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