AJOC EDITORIAL: State education system needs total overhaul

The first step to solving a problem is admitting one exists.

Alaska education officials have finally crossed that threshold after releasing the results from math, science and English tests administered this past spring to more than 70,000 students across the state in grades 3 through 10.

The outcomes were shockingly poor.

Fewer than 15 percent of 10th graders statewide scored proficient in math; for English only 38.4 percent scored proficient or better. More disturbing still is looking at the bar charts that show a steady decline in proficiency from grade 3 to grade 10.

In math, 44.5 percent of third graders scored proficient or better. That’s not great, but it is a starting point for improvement. Instead there is a steady path downward at every grade level before bottoming out at 14.7 percent in grade 10.

“We have to be dissatisfied with the current results,” said Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop was even more blunt.

“Our scores stink,” she told KTUU.

If anything, she understated the situation for the state’s largest local school system.

In the ASD, just 12.2 percent of 10th graders scored proficient in math and a miniscule 2.2 percent as advanced. One in four 10th graders were far below proficient and another 60 percent were below proficient.

In English, a whopping 38.3 percent of ASD 10th graders scored far below proficient while just less than one in three scored as proficient or advanced.

There can be no pointing to an urban-rural divide in outcomes for the state education system when the district with every advantage possible is failing in such epic fashion.

Back in February, Herb Schroeder, the founder of the wildly successful Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, released a study that tracks with the poor results of the state testing by showing that more than half of incoming freshmen from state high schools require at least one remedial course in math or English.

In one particularly ugly data set, Schroeder found that 74 percent of students from five high schools ranging in size and location required remediation despite graduating with an average GPA of 3.16.

What that means is students who qualified for state performance scholarships were unprepared for basic college work.

At the time, many superintendents faulted his study. None should dare question his conclusions now.

Schroeder has since estimated that the cost of remediation between students and the state pushes $42 million per year. Considering the state spends more than $1.3 billion per year on education, it is often paying twice to educate students.

A state with budget deficits topping $2 billion per year cannot afford to spend this much money on a failing system; what it can afford even less is to continue churning out unprepared students.

The state doesn’t need another task force or committee to find solutions. It needs a single mission: To teach English, math and science first, second and last.

Fluffy social science, arts and expensive extracurricular activities must take a backseat to the old fashioned basics. There is no alternative.

The solution is surely not what is found on the ASD website under guidance for parents about state exams that advises: “Encourage your child. Praise him/her for the things they do well. If your child feels confident, he/she will likely do their best on a test.”

This kind of touchy-feely nonsense that has plagued our education system for decades has got to stop. “Feeling confident” is not how to pass a test. Confidence flows from preparation, not from empty praise.

Another thing that has to stop is the misguided focus on graduation rates.

Graduating is obviously important, but it is the academic equivalent of the participation trophy if the end result is merely passing students through the system without educating them.

Schroeder has built the ANSEP success from the middle school level up by ensuring students are not only prepared to enter college, but prepared to excel. That hasn’t happened by lowering standards and social promotion.

A total overhaul must start now for an education system that is crippling our next generation.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
09/06/2017 - 12:29pm

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