Alaska changes HS diploma requirements; no more SAT, ACT

A law that made taking a college aptitude test such as the SAT or ACT mandatory for getting a high school diploma expired Thursday. This signaled an end to 12 years of requiring students to take some form of test, in addition to passing a standard high school curriculum, to get a diploma.

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Students wait to receive their diplomas at Sullivan Arena (Photo by Anne Hillman, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Students wait to receive their diplomas at Sullivan Arena (Photo by Anne Hillman, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

For Alaska students attending high school between 2004 and 2014, the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam, or HSGQE, was a requirement for getting your diploma. The three-day test was administered to sophomores and covered math, reading and writing skills. If you didn’t pass all of the tests, you could retake any that you failed in either your junior or senior year. Otherwise you would receive a certificate of achievement upon graduation instead of a diploma.

After 10 years and questions regarding the effectiveness of the HSGQE in preparing students for college, a new law was put in place under Governor Parnell that got rid of the HSGQE and instead required that a student take the SAT, ACT, or a WorkKeys assessment instead to get a diploma. A student didn’t even need to get a particular score on the exams, just have a test score on file. The state would even cover the cost of one of those tests, which typically ran between 22 and 55 dollars.

Yesterday, after two years of that program, the law expired and students from hereon out only must complete their school’s high school curriculum to get a diploma. There’s just one problem. Margaret MacKinnon, Director of Assessment & Accountability with the Alaska Department of Education, explained.

“The law that repealed the High School Graduation Qualifying Exam explicitly allowed students to earn a diploma retroactively if they had not passed that test,” MacKinnon said. “The law that put into place the College and Career ready assessment requirement, and then repealed it, did not put that provision into place.”

In other words, once the HSGQE was no longer needed to get a diploma, students who didn’t pass that test, but passed their high school’s curriculum, could get their diplomas retroactively. However the graduating classes of 2015 and 2016 got left out.

“It’s just, you know… it really has to do with how the laws are written,” MacKinnon said.

Students who did not take an SAT, ACT, or WorkKeys assessment received a certificate of achievement in lieu of a diploma, just like those who hadn’t passed the HSGQE. In a press release from the Department of Education, the department said students who received one of those certificates can get a diplomabut they would still have to take one of those tests. This means paying for one of the tests instead of the state covering the cost. The Department of Education reported that 46 students from the class of 2015 received a certificate of achievement rather than a diploma. 2016 results aren’t back yet, but MacKinnon expects the amount to be lower.

“And so this year, I expect that there will be less because counselors and principals knew about the requirement and had a longer time to make sure that kids had an opportunity to take the assessments,” MacKinnon said.

Students graduating in 2017 will only have to worry about passing their high school’s curriculum to get a diploma and won’t have to take any sort of comprehensive test.

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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