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 Home > News > Alaska Students with Disabilities Can Graduate Without Passing Exit Exam (April 7, 2004)


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Alaska Students with Disabilities Can Graduate with Diploma in 2004 Without Passing Exit Exam

"My whole future depended on this decision. Now I can get on with my life!
I'm so relieved."

Lawyers for disabled children and for the State of Alaska and Anchorage School District reached an agreement, filed with federal court, which will allow all students with disabilities in the class of 2004 to graduate whether or not they have passed the high school exit exam.

Plaintiffs' lawyers believe that over 500 students will be immediately affected.

Class Action Lawsuit

On March 16, 2004, children with disabilities and their parents filed a statewide class action lawsuit challenging Alaska's controversial High School Graduation Qualifying Examination (HSGQE). The lawsuit charges that the test violates both federal and state law, because it discriminates against students with disabilities in multiple ways and, as implemented, causes students with disabilities to fail, no matter how smart and hardworking they might be. The students filed the lawsuit only after repeated requests to negotiate a solution with the State of Alaska were unsuccessful.

High-Stakes Test Will Not Be Used to Deny Diplomas

The defendants to the action, including the Alaska State Department of Education and Early Development and the Anchorage School District -- after plaintiffs' request for an early negotiation -- made a critical and positive decision for high school seniors with disabilities who are graduating this year by signing an agreement filed in court this morning stipulating to interim relief for these students.

The agreement states that the "HSGQE test results will not be used to deny any class member a diploma in the spring of 2004 provided that the class member meets all other district criteria for graduation and a diploma." Class members are all students who have an Individualized Education Program or Section 504 Plan who have or will be required to take the HSGQE. The stipulation was filed on shortened time with the Honorable James K. Singleton, for his immediate consideration. The court must approve the stipulation for the agreement to be effective.

"This stipulation is a substantial accomplishment and represents total relief for hundreds of high school seniors with disabilities who have satisfied all graduation requirements except for passing all sections of the HSGQE," says attorney David Fleurant of the Disability Law Center of Alaska, attorney for the plaintiffs.

Agreement

According to pro bono plaintiff's attorney Joan Wilson of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, "This agreement today could not have happened without the total cooperation of the Attorney General Renkes and Assistant Attorney General Neil Slotnick, the State Board of Education, the Anchorage School District and its counsel Howard Trickey, and Roger Sampson and Richard Smiley. Their constructive approach to resolving this very time sensitive issue on a rapid, but well-thought out basis clearly indicates a willingness to place the interests of the students first."

In the stipulation, the parties agreed not only to the interim relief for this year's graduating seniors. The parties further agreed that the lawsuit met the requirements of federal rules for filing a class action and agreed that the named students could serve as representatives of the class. These students include Alexander Noon, Kendall Leibach, Douglas Mate, Tiana Lupie, and Irene Takak. Organizational plaintiff the Learning Disabilities Association of Alaska is also a party to the lawsuit.

Parties to Negotiate

In addition, the Parties agreed to a temporary suspension of the lawsuit to pursue negotiations. By stipulation, the parties agreed to hold their first negotiation session on or before May 18, 2004, and to report back to the court no later than July 9, 2004, regarding the progress of their negotiations. "It is our hope to find a legislative, administrative, or negotiated solution in this short timeframe that will prevent the HSGQE exam from being an insurmountable barrier to all Alaska's students with disabilities," Wilson said.

Students & Families Elated and Relieved

Plaintiffs and their parents met the announcement with relief and elation.

Doug Mate, a high school senior with a learning disability in math, is registered to enter the Army in June. "I honestly didn't know if I was going to get a high school diploma or a discharge notice from the Army. I didn't know if I would be getting my $40,000 scholarship for the Calvary Scouts or have to spend time and additional money to be able to pass the math section of the HSGQE. My whole future depended on this decision. Now I can get on with my life! I'm so relieved."

Plaintiff Learning Disabilities Association of Alaska advocates for the rights of individuals with learning disabilities.

Matt Wappett a member of the board of directors is thrilled at this initial move toward equal access skills demonstration. "LDA Alaska believes in students with disabilities. We believe when students are taught the appropriate curriculum, and are provided alternate methods of demonstrating their abilities, many students with learning disabilities will not only meet, but exceed our expectations when it comes to Alaska state educational standards."

Bipartisan Support in Legislature

"Although this agreement is critical to the Class of 2004, a significant amount of work remains to ensure that students with disabilities in future graduating classes have a fair chance to demonstrate their mastery of state educational standards," according to Fleurant.

Several bills have been introduced by legislators on both sides of the aisle in the State Senate and House, revealing bipartisan support for fixing the problems with the HSGQE.

Despite the hard work that that lies ahead, through their courage in coming forward, plaintiffs have accomplished a fantastic outcome for themselves and many other students across the State of Alaska.

Contacts

David Fleurant
Disability Law Center of Alaska
907-565-1002
800-478-1234

Sid Wolinsky
Disability Rights Advocates
510-451-8644

Joan Wilson
Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
907-257-5300

Links: High-Stakes Testing

Class Action Suit Filed Against Alaska's High-Stakes Exit Exam (March 16, 2004) Children with disabilities and their parents filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Alaska Board of Education, challenging Alaska's controversial High School exit exam.

Articles, news, publications about high-stakes testing.

High-Stakes Testing Flyer

High Stakes Lawsuit in Massachusetts: How High Are the Stakes? In September, 2002, six students filed suit against the state department of education and their school district, alleging that the MCAS exam discriminates against students with disabilities, minority students, and students with limited-English skills. (October 1, 2002)

Students with Learning Disabilities Settle Class Action Suit Against Oregon. Panel of National Experts Make Recommendations About Testing of Students with Disabilities. (February 1, 2001)

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