Alaska students failing at an alarming rate. What now?

Published: Sep. 5, 2017 at 6:54 PM AKDT
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Alaska students, at an alarming rate, fail to become proficient in math, science, English, and language arts, according to statewide test results released last Friday by the Education Department.

The Performance Evaluation for Alaska Schools ("PEAKS") test reveals that more than 85 percent of 10th graders are not up to par in math, and two-thirds struggle with English and language arts. Less than half have a firm grasp of key science concepts. Rural students struggle more profoundly than their urban counterparts, but Anchorage students are only slightly better off.

While the results are not groundbreaking and instead reinforce the findings of past statewide assessments, the PEAKS scores are perhaps the worst measure of student outcomes yet and highlight the need for attention to the host of factors dragging the Last Frontier's school system down.

Parents, policymakers, and school leaders will grapple with the bleak implications of the scores in the coming months, as well as with the fact that the scores stand in stark contrast to the state's high level of K-12 spending: Alaska ranked second nationally in per student spending in 2014, the most recent year a national U.S. Census Bureau public education finance survey was conducted.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop said in an interview with Channel 2 News that the results are disappointing but simply confirmed what internal monitoring tools suggested.

"Our scores stink, but it's not a surprise to me," she said. "It shows the work that's ahead of us. There isn't any one answer. There isn't any silver bullet where, 'Oh, if we had this we could have done better.' There's no excuses here. It's really taking a step back and looking at how all of our actions as a system works together."

Even though there is no single solution, Bishop said one step the district is taking is looking for ways to better apply data to make sure kids are getting help they need catching up if they fall behind.

"When a child hasn't learned something, what do we do to accommodate that and share that rather than moving a child on and just continuing up the path without knowing that this is a basis for understanding later on?" she said. "Sometimes, it's very simple things. In middle school, we would continue to have our master schedules the way that they've always been: maybe interest of staff, what do kids want to do? But we never use the data about where kids are to place kids in courses they needed. So we had our mark of, these are our standards, but how do we ensure kids are receiving what they need along every step of the way?"

Bishop said money alone is not the solution to help reverse the trend.

Rep. Jennifer Johnston agrees: "What we have to do is shed ourselves of the old conversations of, 'It's all about the kids, and if we just had more money everything would be OK,'" the Anchorage Republican said in an interview. "It's not a matter of throwing money. We need to take this dissatisfaction and change how we approach education. I hope this is a wake up call for others. I hope people get involved."

Johnston, a member of the House Education Committee, pointed out that the Education Department already has a working group looking for practical steps to improve education, and she said one key way is to make curriculum more relateable and engaging: for example, framing math and science concepts around subsistence hunting for Inupiaq kids.

Deena Mitchell of Great Alaska Schools said that increased investment does matter because it impacts the ability to attract teachers from the Lower 48 and to retain good ones who are already here. She also said that schools alone should not get the blame for bad test scores.

"Obviously families and parents are very important to the education of their children," Mitchell said. "They need to stress to their children how important education is. They need to provide an environment that's conducive to their children learning. They need to have breakfast. They need to have some security at home. They need to have emotional stability."