September 2002 / HSGQE

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Ask the Superintendent: HSGQE
Superintendent's Column
Peninsula Clarion
D. Peterson

September 2002

For those of us in education, we know that the high stakes testing based on Alaska standards becomes a huge deal next year. The class of 2004, this year's Junior Class, will be required to pass the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam (HSGQE) before receiving a diploma from an Alaska public school. But for anyone with a child who is a Junior, there is a general sense of unease because the results from last spring's testing cycle aren't back. The next round of testing occurs on October 28-30 and it is anticipated that results from last spring will not be back until October 15th. All of us wish this wasn't the case, but perhaps a bit of explanation will help everyone understand why it is so and why this is a "one time" event.

First a bit of history:

In 1997, the High School Graduation Exam was established in statute. In 1998, Senate Bill 36 set the requirement for minimum performance standards in math, writing, and reading prior to graduation. In March 2000, the first administration of the high school exam occurred. The test is given in fall and spring, with students required to pass all sections prior to graduation. The first time a student can take the test is the spring of their sophomore year, giving them as many as five opportunities to pass. Once a section (reading, writing, math) is passed, the student does not take that section again. Originally to be implemented for the class of 2002, the date was postponed to 2004 to allow the test to be adjusted to be a measure of essential skills. Fortunately, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has been involved with the standards movement since its beginning over ten years ago and was prepared for implementation of the exam as a high stakes test required for graduation. Because of the adjustment to a test that reflects performance of essential skills, an intense review of test questions occurred this summer (see below). It is anticipated that this will not need to be done again for several years and therefore in the future, results should be "turned around" in a much shorter time frame.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Does this mean the test is being "dumbed down?" No - the intent of the test has been clarified from being a test of standards to a test of essential skills. After the first administration of the test in 2000, a process called "benchmarking" took place to set the cut score (pass/fail) for each of the tests. Questions arose regarding intent of the test - is it a guarantee of minimum standards or a target for all students? The answer to that question makes a big difference. For example, we would all agree that adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing are needed for success beyond high school. But the question of if it is necessary to know how to do a quadrilateral equation is less clear - some people feel it is important, others don't. The question boils to one of "must know" vs. "should know." We could use the analogy of swimming to make this clear. A test of essential skills would be, "Can you make it across the pool?" A test of proficiency on standards would be, "Can you do a perfect breast stroke across the pool?" Last year, the legislature and the state department came to agreement that the test was intended to assure that essential skills (vs. proficiency on all standards) were in place. In August, 2002, with this new direction, a group of individuals convened to review each of the questions and determine the particular questions that all students must know and be able to do prior to graduation. Thus, the new "cut score."

If you didn't have the results back, how do I know my child is in the right class? Schools use many sources of information for placing students in classes, the most important being teacher recommendation at the high school level. In other words, the math teacher/department is likely to know the level of math that is most appropriate for student placement. Since math is sequential, it is important that students progress through the classes successfully. Counselors, curriculum specialists, and teachers have worked together and we believe that nearly all of the students are correctly placed in the math sequence to be on target for successful completion of the HSGQE prior to graduation. A score on a test is only a single indicator of correct placement and usually verifies what the school already knows.

How will I know as a parent whether my child has passed or not so that I'll know whether they need to retake the test sections at the end of October? The State Board of Education acted on the recommendations for the "cut scores" at the August 23rd meeting. The regulation is currently out for public comment for the mandatory 30 day period. On September 23, it is our understanding that the contractor for the tests will be able to "plug in" the scores for all Alaska students that took the test in Spring, 2002, and immediately generate the reports. Those results will be translated to the State Department of Education and the commitment has been that the results will be out to school districts by October 15th. Our job in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will be to immediately get this word to students and parents. We are ready and waiting to make this notification as smooth as possible.

What do I do if my child says that now that they have passed the test, he/she doesn't need to stay in school? We all need to remember that this is a test of essential skills. It is not a test of what SHOULD be learned in high school and is just one "hoop" to obtaining a diploma. Some of the arguments we've heard for staying in school are:

1. Why would you pay for classes in college or other training situations when you can get them for free or for a reduced cost in high school? In our district you have to have 22 credits in specified areas of study to receive a diploma. In addition, with our many partnerships and range of options at the high school level for dual credit with the college, on-line offerings, and mentorships, staying in school should be more appealing than ever.

2. Why would you want to have your child "done" before they were the regular graduation age of 17-18? We all know the emotional maturity of students and older teens. Keeping them in a supervised, positive environment provided by schools with activities, caring adults, and learning for as long as possible is a good thing.

What is the school district doing for students who are NOT passing? The ideal situation would have been a phased approach where the high stakes portion of the test would have started with incoming elementary students and followed them through their school career. However, we can't wait twelve years to guarantee that all students have the opportunity to learn minimum competencies needed for success beyond school. The information gained from the benchmarks at 3rd, 6th, and 8th grade are leading to earlier and more intense interactions for students performing below the benchmarks (summer schools, alternate educational experiences during the school year focused on remediation, etc.) Schools are analyzing this data carefully and making system and instructional changes to make sure that the needs of the students are met and writing student learning plans for those individuals who are not yet successful. Parents are being contacted with information about how their student scored and what interventions have been planned to help them be successful.

Is all this emphasis on testing good or bad? As with all things, there are many areas of gray. The shift from local control to the latest federal control of dollars for schools based on performance of students makes the argument moot. In general, we believe that increased accountability is a good thing. The details of how that should look are where people have differences. Thankfully, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is well positioned to demonstrate student competency. We are looking hard at individuals and schools that are not performing as well as we'd wish, and rather than finding excuses, we are working with parents to assure ALL are successful. Another issue that continues to be examined is the amount of testing time. Right now, it seems that as long as the required test sequence is reasonable and that the information is usable for improving instruction, we're okay.

What can parents do? Keeping the test issue in perspective is one important way parents can help. We all know the value of a good breakfast and a decent night's sleep prior to the school day. On October 28, 29, 30, that good breakfast and good rest are especially important. We don't want students to be too "tense" about the test or to be too "laid back." The tests are important, the need to do well is important, but since the tests are on standards that are incorporated every day into the classrooms of this District, success on the test before graduation is very likely.

What if I have questions? Contacting your school counselor, classroom teacher, or principal are good first steps for questions regarding performance of individual students. Sam Stewart, Director of Secondary Education, and Paula Christensen, Director of Elementary Education, are also available at 262-9805 to answer your questions.