State adopts exemptions for graduation exams

Exceptions include students recently arriving in Alaska or those who suffered a major illness

Posted: Thursday, December 04, 2003

ANCHORAGE - The state Board of Education has adopted rules that will allow some students who fail the high school graduation qualifying exam to get diplomas anyway.

The exemptions would apply to students who move to Alaska within two semesters of graduation, as well as students who have a parent die during the last semester of their graduating year, or suffer a serious illness or injury.

How many students will qualify for exemptions?

"We don't have a clue," said Rich Mauer, state Board of Education chairman.

This is the first year that seniors in Alaska public high schools must pass the exit exam in reading, writing and math to graduate. Those who fail the three-part test get a certificate of achievement instead of a diploma.

State law originally said the test would apply to all students graduating in 2002 or later. But in 2002, the Legislature delayed the exam's effective date to 2004 - this spring.

Kevin Sweeney, special assistant to Department of Education Commissioner Roger Sampson, told board members Tuesday that a bill was filed in the Legislature last year that proposed again delaying the test if the state decreases education funding.

But Sampson said another delay in Alaska seems unlikely.

"I've heard nothing to indicate that will happen," he said.

Nineteen states had exit exams in place in 2003, with five others, including Alaska, phasing in tests by 2008. In the past year, many of these states have amended, postponed or changed their exit exams because of mounting public opposition and the prospect of denying diplomas to students.

Jeremy Waite, the student member on the state board, said there are pros and cons to delaying Alaska's test.

"It kind of goes both ways," said Waite, a senior at Bethel Regional High School. "If we keep delaying it, students may not take it seriously. But it's a big exam and we want to get it right."

Part of getting it right meant coming up with a system for waivers and appeals. The board didn't want to open the door to waivers too wide or close it too narrowly, Sampson said.

Under the new rules, students will apply to their local school boards for waivers. If they feel they were unfairly denied an exemption, they can appeal to a three-person committee made up of state Board of Education members or Department of Education employees.

Sampson will appoint the committee members. He said the department will create as many committees as needed to deal with appeals.

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