Legislation changing high school graduation exam requirements goes into effect this year. The new requirements mean more state-funded testing opportunities for high school seniors. The change qualified three dozen former Ketchikan students to receive retroactive diplomas.


In order to graduate high school in the state of Alaska, high school seniors previously were required to pass a graduation qualifying exam. New legislation is changing that 14-year-old regulation.

House bill 220 calls for an end to the graduation exam, but that doesn’t mean seniors don’t get tested on their way out of high school. The old test was a qualifying exam that required a passing grade to earn a diploma – the new system aims to simply track scores to create a comprehensive set of data on student progress. Before, students had the choice between three tests, which gave the school district scattered data that didn’t illustrate academic trends very well. Robert Boyle is the superintendent of Ketchikan School District.

“The law in my opinion offered a mess. There was no way for us to track the progress of the school in delivering school improvement plans or planning to improve our instruction for the district, because we could never predict one year to the next which assessment which kids would take… and so if we gave a work level entry test to all students, that allows us to create a uniform set of data, year in and year out, to plan school improvement programs and that ensures our students graduate,” Boyle said.

The new requirement is called WorkKeys, and it’s a basic post-secondary education preparation test. It’s written by the makers of the ACT, and it focuses on practical skills specific to the working world. The school board in Ketchikan decided to make WorkKeys the test administered to all seniors over the ACT and the SAT because of the lengthy registration period.

“SAT tests have a window and it’s very narrow. The window for WorkKeys is quite large,” Boyle said. “It’s over a two-month period of time. There’s very, very little chance if any for a student to miss the test window for work keys.”

Students are not limited to WorkKeys alone, however. Between the school district and the state Department of Education, the cost to take WorkKeys and one other exam is covered.

“If you take WorkKeys, you still get to take either one of those tests free of charge,” Boyle said. “Either the state or the district will pay for that.”

Boyle said using WorkKeys as an out-going student test will make graduation rates go up by default, because there is no minimum score required to receive a diploma. That means as long as students meet all other graduation requirements, the out-going exam won’t prevent graduation. Boyle told the School Board last month that as long as students put in legitimate effort to the test, a bad score on WorkKeys won’t stop them from graduating.

“They have to make what’s called a viable effort. Essentially if a student just blows off this test, they cannot graduate,” Boyle said. “If they sit down for it and make no serious attempt toward it, they would not qualify for graduation.”

For former students who did not pass the high school graduation qualifying exam and were denied diplomas since 2000, there is good news: they may now be eligible to receive their high school diplomas. Students who didn’t pass the HSGQE but met all other graduation requirements previously were issued a certificate of achievement, which Boyle says was the equivalent of a GED.

“We were considering the certificate of achievement and a GED to be equivalent,” Boyle said.

But now, because of House Bill 220, they can simply request their diplomas from the school district, and so long as a subpar HSGQE score was the only limiting factor, the school district can retroactively issue their diploma.

In Ketchikan, 31 former students from Kayhi and five from Revilla Alternative School are eligible to retroactively receive their diplomas. So far, 11 diplomas from Kayhi and two diplomas from Revilla have been issued.