Latest assessments show poor results for state students
Results from spring 2017 testing throughout Alaska school districts showed more than half of all students from grades three to 10 aren’t up to proficient levels in math, English and science.
School districts’ scores throughout the state indicate even the largest schools lag behind while some smaller ones excel.
About 70,600 students took part in the English language arts and math tests. Of those, 25,300 took the science assessment, which covered three grade levels.
The Department of Education and Early Development released the spring 2017 testing results from a new test tool known as PEAKs on Aug. 30, but embargoed the results until Sept. 1. This gave DEED a chance to explain through a webinar the new tests, its scores and what lays ahead in new plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.
In English language arts, or ELA, grade 6 took the highest scores at 45.3 percent proficiency, while grade 10 performed the lowest at 32 percent. In math, again, 10th graders performed poorly with an overall score of 14.7 percent proficient. Grade three came up with the highest math scores at 44.5 percent.
Only grades 4, 8 and 10 were tested in the science portion. Grade 10 scored highest at 54.7 percent, while 8th graders came in at 46.9 percent and 4th grade at 39.7 percent.
Here are the findings:
• Overall in ELA more than 60 percent scored below proficient: 30.8 percent scored “far below proficient,” while 30.7 percent were proficient. Only 7.7 percent were “advanced” and another 30.8 percent were “below proficient.”
• Overall in math, 68.1 percent scored below proficient: 51.1 scored below proficient, while another 17 percent far below proficient. Only 3.9 scored at advanced in math while 27.9 percent were deemed proficient.
• Alaska students did better in science, though 53.5 percent were either far below proficient or below proficient. Of all students tested, 19.9 percent were advanced and 26 percent were proficient.
Education Commissioner Michael Johnson was asked if these scores worried him.
“The story it tells is really no different than it was at the beginning of the Alaska Education Challenge,” Johnson said. “We have to be dissatisfied with current results. We have more opportunity now to address those challenges than we’ve ever had before. This is baseline data. It leaves a lot to look forwards to.”
The spring 2017 scores will now constitute the new base line for improvement, Johnson said.
“This works into the two education initiatives: the Alaska Education Challenge and ESSA,” Johnson said.
Both of those carry prescriptive actions for increasing student scores in all areas.
Johnson also said, “it’s important to be clear: some schools and districts are doing quite well when we look at PEAKs.”
The aggregate scoring doesn’t capture the schools or the individuals who did exceptionally well, he added. And it is just one tool when looking at academics throughout the state:
• One school district that stood out among others was the tiny Unalaska School District’s 231 students. They came in with 52 percent ranking as advanced or proficient in ELA and 46 percent advanced or proficient in math. That’s about 10 percentage points above the statewide average.
• Among the largest school districts in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Kenai and Mat-Su schools, the Mat-Su School District led with 47.5 percent advanced or proficient in ELA but lagged at 37 percent proficient or advanced in math.
• The 4,500 Mat-Su students tested came out equal to the Kenai Peninsula’s 2,300 students in math scores: 37 percent but better than the ELA score of 46.9 percent.
• Anchorage School District tested about 27,000 students. ELA scores came in at 40.2 percent proficient or advanced and math at 35.6 percent proficient or advanced.
• Fairbanks North Star Borough School District stayed in the same vicinity at ELA scores of 40.5 advanced or proficient, and 37.4 percent advanced or proficient in math.
• Bristol Bay School District’s 40 students tested also scored higher than the state average at 45 percent in ELA and 40.9 percent in math.
• One consistent and curious detail about the testing results is that 10th graders almost universally came out with the lowest math scores compared to 3rd-9th graders. Anchorage 10th graders averaged only 16.7 percent proficient in math; in Fairbanks, 16 percent; Kenai 17 percent; Mat-Su 16.4 percent.
• In the Yukon-Koyukon School District, only 4.4 percent of 10th graders tested advanced or proficient, leaving 95 percent below proficiency in math.
The Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools differed from the previous testing known as AMPs or the Alaska Measures in Progress, said Brian Laurent, the data management supervisor for the Department of Education.
“But any comparison is inappropriate,” he added, because that tool held a number of problems.
AMP was a disappointment as a measuring tool. Reports had to be corrected and then, in the end, there wasn’t a sufficient level of information on student performance, according to the DEED presentation. A different vendor, Data Recognition Corp, which had previous experience with test creation for Alaska, created PEAKs, .
In April 2016, DEED canceled general and alternate assessments in ELA, math and science after a construction incident in Kentucky interrupted the computer-based testing. So in November of that year, the U.S. Department of Education waived the requirements to give the test and subsequent reporting of results.
But even after the results were known, Johnson told those gathered at the Aug. 30 Webinar that he is pleased with PEAKs as the tool to use going forward.
“We’re very satisfied with it,” Johnson said. “We’re looking forward to continuing its use in years to come. It hits home for me that the context here is very different: we have urban versus rural and the geographic scope of schools across the state. It has an Alaska-specific infrastructure and comes from a vendor who can recognize those challenges.”
PEAKs supplies only one primary piece of information on how schools and districts are doing. It does supply a blueprint for where to target improvement efforts, Laurent said. And it puts all students on an equal footing for measuring their understanding in vital subjects.
The road ahead now, for all the school districts, will come through guidance from the Department of Education through the two initiatives of ESSA and the Alaska Education Challenge.
ESSA set standards and goals. It outlines plans for how to hold schools accountable when their students perform poorly. But instead of penalizing, as happened under ESSA’s predecessor No Child Left Behind Act, it gives them more resources, Laurent said.
“We hope the public takeaway from the public test results is showing that we have a transparent system. We’re honest about our results,” he said.
There are five essential questions that get answered. The test gets at whether students “know what we want them to know, and know how to do it.”
It also helps teachers focus on those questions and then gauges whether the effort succeeds on both sides.
These test results track with other statistics on Alaska students, such as an internal study by the University of Alaska that found more than 52 percent of its incoming freshmen needed remedial courses in English and math before they could proceed to the required courses.
Another dismal statistic is that Alaska is below the national average in high school graduation rates at 71.6 percent, Laurent acknowledged.
The PEAK results also mirror the results of the National Assessment of Education Progress or NAEPs test that are given every other year, he said.
To address the persistent issues that show Alaska is indeed far below the national average in several key grading areas, five committees are at work in particular areas and will be issuing a report to the Alaska Legislature and Gov. Bill Walker, Laurent told the webinar group.
The committees are each composed of 20 members tasked with the five strategic priorities expressed in the Alaska Education Challenge.
They are made up of stakeholders including parents, teachers, the business community, tribal leaders, and others who are work on five specific challenges: to amplify learning, inspire tribal and community ownership of education, modernize the education system, ensure excellent educators and promote safety and well-being.
On Oct. 4 they will present their findings at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center as the Alaska Education Challenge Wrap Up.
“The goal is to bring all of these committees and the state board together to present their transformative presentations, and the public is invited,” said Erin Hardin, information officer for the Department of Education.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.