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High school exit exam leaves some students behind

By Alexis Fernandez 10:05 PM March 4, 2014

School counselors weigh in on high school exit exam debate

ANCHORAGE – To test or not to test? That’s the question being debated in high schools across Alaska, including at East High School.

As state lawmakers debate whether to eliminate the high school exit exam, some school counselors are weighing in.

“There isn’t a significant benefit except for kids that pass it,” said Scott Henry, an ELL counselor at East High School.

Henry says he sees the downside of the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam (HSGQE) firsthand.

“It’s really tragic to see kids that work really, really, really hard for three or four years once they get here, to be one or two points away,” Henry said.

He says the group being left behind, is the English Language Learner (ELL) students.

“If a student comes here when they’re 16 or 17 — and they’re brand new to the country and brand new to the language, the reality of them passing those tests is low,” Henry said.

According to Henry, out of the nearly 500 students who graduated from East last year, 50 failed the test and didn’t get a diploma. Instead they got a Certificate of Achievement.

He says although it’s a small percentage, these students will eventually impact the future workforce.

“They aren’t able to get into college, and even with the military, only some branches are accepting a certificate of attendance,” he continued.

According to Alaska Department of Education, the exit exam went into effect in 2004.

Since then, 2,388 students have received a certificate instead of a diploma. Last year, 364 were given — 132 of those were ELL students.

Here in Anchorage, 108 certificates were given out last year, about three percent of the graduating class.

Henry says the current culture of testing is hurting students, rather than helping.

“Not having it tied to whether they get a diploma, that might be a much more functional approach than having this hard line that says if you can’t pass it, you don’t earn a diploma,” Henry said.

But not everyone agrees. David Nees, a retired Anchorage School District teacher of 25 years, says the exam serves a purpose.

“It lets the public know that when you have a high school degree, that you actually are kind of competent, in reading, writing and mathematics,” Nees said.

And believes it needs to stay.

“It’s the only measurement that we have right now that actually meaures mastery in something,” he said.

Two very different answers to a complicated debate that is far from over.

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