An Exit Ramp for Native Achievement
It's the creation of a second-class society, this thing called the exit exam. Scores of students from specific cultures or demographic backgrounds will be given certificates of achievement starting this year instead of
diplomas. But who would know it and who will help change it?
Numbers released last month by Alaska's Department of Education and Early Development show that if today's high school students are given the Exit Exam and three retakes, then some troubling patterns emerge.
Forty-six percent of Alaska Native students will no longer be receiving diplomas. Instead, the chosen form of a reward to students who finish high school will be the "Certificate of Achievement."
Students from lower-income families will be also hit hard. A resounding 47 percent of these students will be unable to pass the exit exam and thus will be eligible for a certificate, should they remain in school to receive it.
Finally, the group that loses the most will be bilingual or limited English proficient (LEP) students. For these students, a stunning 60 percent will never pass the exit exam and never know what it is like to finish high school with a diploma - even if they fulfill their school's requirements.
Some people are already saying, "But kids can't be given a diploma if they do not have the skills needed in the job world." And this statement is correct. But what if the exam itself shows overt signs of bias? Let's
examine that idea.
For bias to exist would mean that the exit exam itself was targeted toward helping test-takers who are not Alaska Native, lower-income or LEP. How could that be? The state spends more than $4 million each year to ensure that such things cannot take place. Still, this unfortunate result of having a test prepared Outside seems more and more likely when you look at the test
questions students can practice on.
Sen. Con Bunde ensures that there are strict security measures in place so that no one can get a copy of the actual test. You know - briefcases handcuffed to armed educational agents and police-escorted motorcades when
the test arrives into town - the whole works.
Still, the state's practice exam, which is located online, just happens to show the same sense of bias against Alaska Natives, lower-income students and LEP students that I was talking about. In it you will find multiple
illustrations using the toys of the middle and upper classes, questions about things like Palm Pilots, cell phones, long distance calling plans and traveling out of state. How often can these things be found in the Bush?
Many villages have no need for Palm Pilots and 85 percent of them lack cellular access. In villages, there is often only a single long-distance calling provider, not a choice between two of them. The illustrations are inherently more unfamiliar to some of the state's students.
Yet worse things happen. On the test, there is the implied idea that if you don't have these urban toys you haven't really succeeded as a student. Statements like "most students" have these things and "most people have cell phones handy most of the time" are on the practice exam.
Once again, it is a snow job. The state promised us that the exam was unbiased. They even allowed it to be quality checked by Alaskans. Still, the sludge of Western culture was poured in ever so richly.
This leads us to wonder what we can do to change this.
Jonathan Doll is a former teacher in the Arctic village of Deering and
currently a doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University. His organization
founded to address equity issues is Educational Equity
(www.educationalequity.net). He lives in Anchorage.
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