Old Believer students face tough choice
High school exit exam falls during Holy Week; district’s appeal denied
BY MICHAEL ARMSTRONG
Russian Old Believer high school students taking next spring’s high school qualifying exit exam face a choice of conscience: Do they follow the laws of the state or of their God? For the devoutly religious students attending school in the Old Believer communities of Nikolaevsk, Razdolna, Voznesenka and Kachemak Selo, there is no real choice. They will attend Holy Week services and not take the test.
Under the religious calendar used by Old Believers — and taken into consideration by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in setting up village school schedules — Holy Feast days happen during the area schools’ spring break, April 5-9, 2010. The state high school exit exams are held April 6-8.
«Every day of the week is a Holy Feast Day,» said Stan White, a teacher at Voznesenka School, told the Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education at its meeting in Homer on Monday at Homer High School. «Our students have been denied the opportunity to take the test this spring.»
The school district appealed the test to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, said Superintendent Steve Atwater. That appeal was denied.
No exceptions can be made, said Erik McCormick, assessment director for DEED. Under a contract with Data Recognition Corporation, the test contractor, the three-part test cannot be taken earlier or later.
«If we were to allow kids to take it at a different time, we could violate our own contract,» he said. «We have contractual obligations, we have federal law responsibilities. It’s unfortunate.»
McCormick said there was no malice against Old Believers in the state’s decision.
The DEED commissioner sets two exit exam test periods a year, one this month and another in the spring. Test schedules are posted five years in advance. Exit exams have to be done in time to get results before high school graduations, but as late in the year as possible so students have learned as much as possible to take the qualifying exams.
Alex Trout, principal of Voznesenka School, said about 12 of his sophomores will be affected by the conflict next spring and won’t take the test. Four juniors and one senior are taking the fall tests, either one or more sections, and depending on how they do, might not have another — or, for the senior, final — chance to pass the exit exam. If a senior failed this fall’s exam, he or she would have to wait until fall 2010 to take the exit exam again.
The conflict with the Old Believer Holy Feast days also affects students in grades 3-9 taking the standards based assessments, or SBA, tests. SBA tests can be taken later, however. How schools do on SBA tests affects their adequate yearly progress scores, testing required under the federal «No Child Left Behind» Act. Attendance by sophomores at the exit exams is calculated in school AYP scores.
«Our schools will not meet the adequate yearly progress,» White told the school board. «It’s also very demoralizing to our students and our staff knowing we will be denied the chance to meet the AYP.»
McCormick said attendance can be averaged over several years if students don’t take the tests.
«AYP is a valid concern,» he said. «There is flexibility there. The law does allow averaging.»
The conflict with the Old Believer religious calendar also affects Old Believer students going to other Alaska schools. Although most Alaska Old Believers live on the lower Kenai Peninsula, there are other communities in Wasilla and Delta Junction.
Trout said there had been a conflict with an Old Believer religious holiday several years ago, but only for one day of the exit exams. Students were allowed to take the test a day early, and parents and students had to sign a statement saying they would not discuss the test.
Atwater said the district accommodates the religious needs of students and families in setting calendars.
«We accommodate the Russian Old Believers every year. That’s why they don’t have school during the holy days,» he said. «We want to be respectful and accommodate as we can, but we don’t want to do anything to further a religion.»
That’s the balance set out in the First Amendment — and the balance the state should apply, said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Alaska.
«The state needs to accommodate their needs,» he said of the Old Believers . «The First Amendment has a free exercise (of religion) clause. The state can’t interfere with the right to practice.»
«Certainly we (the ACLU) believe the principle would suggest the state should be providing some means to these students to take the test,» Mittman added.
With school districts serving students of many diverse racial, ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, trying to avoid conflicts with religious days is a challenge, McCormick said. He noted that the week before the exit exams is Passover.
His predecessor had met with rabbis regarding an earlier conflict with testing over Passover, and determined if the testing was in the day there would not be a religious conflict. McCormick said DEED had not met with Old Believers .
«We haven’t met recently with the Russian community at all,» he said. «We’re certainly open to that.»
White asked the school board to listen to the concerns of Old Believers parents and teachers serving those communities.
«We’d like to see the matter pursued as much as possible so we can get a favorable outcome to the students — even through the courts,» White said.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong.@homernews.com.