With school districts working on their budgets and teacher layoffs looming, the potential change in the base student allocation is the most talked about portion of the governor’s education package. But part of the bill that has the most political momentum is a section that would repeal the high school exit exam that students need to graduate.
Separate pieces of the legislation that would do just that have already been introduced in both legislative chamber, and the first hearing of the policy was held Friday morning.
To make sure schools are doing their job of educating students and preparing them for college or the workforce, you need some sort of metric. But what if that metric isn’t actually measuring anything anymore?
On Wednesday, Gov. Sean Parnell said the exit exam every high schooler must pass to get their diploma is “obsolete” and unnecessary given that the state has new standards. Now, lawmakers like Charlie Huggins, a Republican senator from Wasilla, are questioning whether the test ever had any value.
“I don’t think it affected any change,” says Huggins.
That seems to be a popular opinion. A chorus of school board members, superintendents, and parents called in to a Friday hearing of the Senate Education Committee to support Senate Bill 111. They also voiced their complaints over the high school graduation qualifying exam. Among the most frequent: It takes time away from classroom learning; it’s expensive to administer; and it doesn’t really capture how much a student has learned.
The exit exam also has a real “human cost,” as Larry Talley put it. Talley came to the meeting in person to testify about the experience of having a special needs child who couldn’t pass the exam.
“He took the test six times. And five times of course was while he was in school, starting his sophomore year,” says Talley. “Again and again, he failed.”
Talley says his son maintained a 3.25 GPA and was accepted into a college that teaches students with learning disabilities. But he couldn’t attend until he passed the exit exam and got his diploma. That meant putting off college for a year, and getting removed from his parents’ health insurance because he was no longer a full-time student.
“The stress, the humiliation, the pain – it’s very hard to describe, but we went through that,” says Talley. “My family lived that.”
Not all of the testimony hammered the exit exam. Deputy Commissioner Les Morse with the Department of Education said that while the test may now be obsolete, it did have a point when it was first introduced.
“My belief is that for our student who are struggling the most and have been the least successful, maybe the exam brought higher instructional programs to them over time so that they were achieving at least at the basic level before they left.”
Even so, the Department of Education is supportive of retiring the test now.
“So the assessment played a role, but may not need to continue to play that role anymore,” says Morse.
The bills introduced by state legislators don’t offer a replacement for the exit exam. However, the governor has proposed using college placement or job skill assessment tests as a substitute for the exit exam as part of his omnibus education bill. The state would pay for the first test, and there would be no minimum score a student needs to beat to get a diploma.
Watch the committee meeting | Courtesy Gavel Alaska