The high school exit exam that has haunted students for a decade, officially known by its cumbersome moniker, the "High School Graduation Qualifying Examination" or HSGQE, is dead. With its downfall comes a gift for some 3,300 Alaska graduates who were unable to conquer it after its implementation in 2004: The diploma that eluded them will finally be theirs.
The exit exam was created with the intent of raising the basic skill level of Alaska's high school graduates. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, former legislator Con Bunde led the call to toughen graduation standards and thereby, in theory, improve student readiness for college. He and others were concerned that too few graduates were prepared for higher education or jobs.
For the last decade, high school sophomores have sat for the three-day exam, which measured reading, writing and mathematical competency. If students didn't pass, they continued to take it as juniors and seniors. If they still didn't pass but had met all other high school requirements, they received certificates of graduation instead of diplomas.
The exam was eliminated this spring by the Legislature with the passage of House Bill 278, coined "Alaska's Education Opportunity Act" by Gov. Sean Parnell. The bill also expands opportunities for vocation and career training and access to boarding and charter schools.
Students weren't being served by the exit exam, according to Sen. Gary Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak, who sponsored the change. He pointed to the fact that although many students had passed the exam, many of those same students still required remedial math and writing coursework once they entered the university system.
While the exam was intended to measure 10th-grade skills, its critics claimed it did not serve any purpose in determining career or college readiness. In the years since its inception, critics said, school districts have adopted better, continuous assessment methods. Administering and taking the exam caused teachers and students to miss six days of teaching and learning time a year.
"It has run its course," Stevens said in his sponsor statement in support of dropping the exit exam.
The end of the exit exam is welcome news for parents and educators who have watched anxious students struggle to pass the test and witnessed other students who passed the first time become noticeably disengaged with school.
In its place, students will have to sit for one of three college and job-readiness exams: the ACT, the SAT or a career skills assessment called WorkKeys. The state will pay for one sitting of one of the exams. Among the topics the Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development will discuss this week at its Anchorage board meeting are proposed regulations called for by the repeal of the exit exam, including the implementation of the new assessments.
'Cruel and unusual punishment'
Larry Talley, the dad of a student with a disability, shared with legislators in January how onerous the exit exam had been for his college-bound son, who has multiple learning disabilities and had to take the test six times before passing. Because he didn't pass at the time of graduation, his college plans were put on hold. He needed the diploma to attend his college of choice, even though he'd already been admitted. The family felt other impacts as well. Because Talley's son was then no longer a full-time student, he was dropped from Talley's health insurance policy, and they had to pay out of pocket for expensive dental work.
Talley's son did eventually make it to college, where he is thriving and on the dean's list.
"I find it hard to understand what public good can come from applying the cruel and unusual punishment of the HSGQE to innocent children," Talley testified at a hearing about the repeal of the exit exam held at the start of the 2014 legislative session.
The exam was passed into law in 1997 but not implemented until 2004. In 2002, the math component was made easier. In 2007, more adjustments came. The writing section was made more difficult; reading was made easier. By 2013, 10th graders sitting for the exam had made improvements in reading and math, but scores in writing had slipped, according to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Child Development. Thirty percent failed reading in 2004; in 2013, 16.5 percent failed. For writing, in 2004 13.8 percent of the 10th graders failed, while in 2013 28.2 percent failed. In math, 33.3 percent failed in 2004; 23 percent failed in 2013.
"We have over 900 students who, over the course of this exam, were not successful," said Ed Graff, superintendent for the Anchorage School District. Those 900 ASD students passed their classes, and may have passed one or two sections of the exit exam, but were not able to get their diplomas.
"When you have an exam that is given one time in your K-12 career, and it's given in the 10th grade, you are missing nine years of opportunities to address student learning," Graff said.
ASD now utilizes what Graff calls much more immediate and relevant data to support student instruction and student learning. Universal screening is performed three times a year, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through eighth grade. Teachers then have an opportunity to make adjustments to individual students' needs as the year progresses.
"My focus is going to be on the students' learning process. (The HSGQE) doesn't provide that same sort of value," he said.
When the repeal takes effect July 1, ASD's 900 diplomaless graduates will be among an estimated 3,300 graduates from across the state who will be retroactively eligible for a diploma. School districts are in the process of figuring out how to verify which former graduates qualify and how best to track them down.
College- and career-bound
According to data compiled by Tom Mortenson, who runs the education policy website postsecondary.org, Alaska trails the nation when it comes to sending its high school graduates to college. In 2010, 46.4 percent of Alaska's students were in college by age 19. The national average for the same year was 62.5 percent.
Saicha Oba, associate vice president for student enrollment services with the University of Alaska statewide, is hopeful the end of the high school exit exam, and in its place the emergence of other assessments, will help Alaska catch up.
By looking only at expectations for a 10th grader, the high school exit exam didn't provide useful information to the university system about whether a student would, two years later, have the skills needed to succeed in college, Oba said.
The ACT and SAT measure academic readiness and are used as standard admissions exams by colleges and universities across the nation. Fees for those tests start at $36.50 and $51, respectively, with extra fees for subject tests, registration changes and additional score reports. WorkKeys, which measures real-world skills needed for job success, is administered through the Alaska Department of Education during a student's junior year in high school.
"The taking of the ACT and the SAT are very, very big because it's an activity that somebody who is looking at postsecondary education should go through. The state paying for it is going to go a long way for changing the culture of how you look at life after high school," Oba said.
The state has said it won't require a minimum score on any of the tests. It simply wants students to go through the process. By eliminating the HSGQE, the state has said it will save nearly $2 million a year.
For Oba, sitting for the college readiness tests is one component of developing a college-going mindset. Families go through the planning together. By having their children take the college entrance tests, along with saving money and talking about college, parents reinforce the value of secondary education, Oba said. And college doesn't have to mean a four-year degree. One-year, two-year and certificate programs are all viable paths to careers, he said.
According to Oba, even tests that focus on readiness for colleges or careers aren't the best predictors for success in the University of Alaska system. The best predictor is how a student spent his or her years in the classroom, underscoring what Anchorage superintendent Graff has said should be the core educational focus for Alaska's youth.
"What they took in high school is the best indicator of how successful they will be. Courses taken is a higher predictor of success than a test score or even a grade point average. It is what they are learning in the classroom that helps them the most when they get into the university classroom. A test score only provided a very narrow picture of a student's ability on a particular day or even on that particular test," Oba said.
Reach Jill Burke at email@example.com.
By JILL BURKE
Alaska Dispatch Publishing