OPINION: Another failing grade for Alaska schools

In its release of the latest statewide performance assessments for Alaska students, the state Department of Education and Early Development cautioned against comparing the results to prior years but I did it anyway.

The spring 2021 Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools, also known as PEAKS, were the first administered since 2019 as they were waived amid the COVID-19 suspension of in-person instruction last year.

You have to click through the link in the press release to see the results that are once again a dismal indictment of how the state’s public schools continue to post unacceptable outcomes in the core areas of English Language Arts and Mathematics.

The state DEED advised not to compare the 2021 results to prior years based on the drastic decline in participation rate — from about 90 percent in 2019 to just 64 percent in 2021 — but there is virtually no difference in proficiency in spite of fewer students taking the tests.

In 2019, all students in grades 3 through 9 rated as proficient in English arts numbered 39.2 percent; in 2021 the same cohort tallied 39.5 percent.

In math, just 35.7 percent of third- to ninth-graders scored proficient in 2019 compared to 32.4 percent in 2021.

There is much to be disturbed about simply looking at the topline statewide results, but one alarming trend stands out: math proficiency in particular declines the longer students are in the state’s public schools.

Third-graders posted nearly 38 percent proficiency in math and that number steadily declines at each grade level until bottoming out at 26 percent proficient for eighth-graders (ninth-graders came in at 30.7 percent proficient).

A similar trend after reaching middle school appears in the English arts. Student performance improved from 36 percent proficient in third grade to nearly 47 percent by sixth grade. However, by ninth grade proficiency in English arts sinks back to the same 36 percent as the third graders.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a longtime educator and administrator in rural Alaska, made education reform a central part of his campaign but no meaningful measures have been enacted or gained any traction as the all-consuming fights over the budget deficit, vetoes and the Permanent Fund dividend have become the black hole of state politics that swallows up every other pressing issue.

For all the recent obsessing over “equity” (of outcomes) versus “equality” (of opportunities), the single greatest effort that could be made to achieve both is in education. Alongside a stable, healthy home life, no factor is a greater predictor of future success than a quality education.

Disengaged parents who treat school as a daycare center without engaging in their children’s progress or lack thereof are just as much to blame as the teachers unions which resist any attempts at accountability for outcomes such as below proficient students in math outnumbering their peers by 2-to-1 year after year.

With that said, parents also deserve the freedom and the resources to send their children to the schools where they feel the best education is being delivered.

Long since has passed the time when the State of Alaska must hit a reset on its educational priorities to a relentless focus on the basics that is sustained through graduation.

Math, reading and writing are not just some co-equal subjects to social justice curriculum and classroom time should reflect that at a minimum until such time as the results afford us the luxury of engaging in university-level hippie-dippy theorizing.

Educating students on respecting someone’s pronouns does no good if they don’t even know what a pronoun is.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

09/08/2021 - 10:01am