FAIRBANKS - Alaska students can expect to see a new set of statewide tests - including the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam - beginning next fall.
Officials with the state Department of Education say the change is one way to bring the state into compliance with federal education law.
The change also is needed because the current system tests students too early in the year and results come back too late to be useful to teachers, said Education Commissioner Roger Sampson.
The plan calls for the creation of twice as many tests in half the time it took to produce the existing state exams. The first version of the new exit exam is scheduled to be ready by October 2004.
Sampson said the change must occur quickly because some schools are already facing sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the sweeping education reform bill signed by President Bush in early 2002.
"It's very high stakes," Sampson told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
But critics say the compressed schedule could result in a poorly developed test that gives inaccurate information on student performance.
Some also say the short timeline allows for little public input and that the state could end up with a bill that exceeds the cost of the current system.
Nick Stayrook, director of program planning and evaluation for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, said the state will lose all the work it has put into the current system. Stayrook is a member of a state committee on assessments and played a large role in the creation of the current testing system.
"It does seem to be a terrible shame that after the six years of developing these tests, we are just going to replace everything," Stayrook said.
Alaska's mandatory testing system now uses two types of tests.
Students in fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth grades take a test that compares their performance to a national average rather than to state standards.
Students in third, sixth and eighth grades take state benchmark exams, and students starting in 10th grade take the exit exam. Both types of exams evaluate a student's performance on a set of criteria or standards developed for Alaska.
The state says the inconsistency is a problem.
"A big piece is we want to have an assessment tool that is consistent throughout all of the grade levels, three through nine," said Les Morse, the state director of assessment and accountability.
A series of similar tests would allow teachers and parents to easily track student progress from grade to grade, he said.