Have Alaska’s children been left behind?

  • By WIN GRUENING
  • Thursday, December 10, 2015 1:02am
  • Opinion

When results of new standardized testing for Alaska’s public school students were released last month, there was initial shock and dismay expressed by some parents and educators. What the test results revealed were that students in our public schools apparently were not as academically “proficient” as previously thought.

Some districts chose to spin this news a different way by highlighting the differences between individual schools and focusing on how their school “beat the state average.” Yet, the results overall reflected that only 35 percent of students across the state, on average, met standards for English Language Arts and only 31 percent for Math. Juneau School District Superintendent Mark Miller, to his credit, while recognizing that Juneau students may have done slightly better than many schools, stated: “We need to be better than that, and we know it.”

One reason this has caught some off-guard is that previous standardized tests showed an almost complete opposite picture — where, in most cases, over 70 percent of students were deemed “proficient.” However, the tests with new Alaska Measurement of Progress (AMP) standards — adopted in 2012 and first tested last March — cannot be compared to the old Standards Based Assessments (SBA) because not only have the standards been raised, the test format relies less on multiple choice and more on analysis and problem solving. The new untimed computer-based testing, with 140 questions in all, is conducted in a proctored setting and is taken online. This year, almost 73,000 students across the state from grades 3 through 10 took the test.

Education officials have long noted that while students seemingly were academically proficient under the old SBA testing, Alaska lagged behind the rest of the country in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing done periodically for 4th and 8th graders. In addition, educators were reporting that 50 percent of entering freshman were required to take remedial courses when entering the University of Alaska while 20 percent of Alaskans could not pass military entrance exams in English or math. Many believed that higher standards were needed, and this led to the state adopting new standards in 2012 for English and math. To assist in this effort, the state of Alaska entered a five-year, $25 million contract with the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at the University of Kansas, which developed the computer-based Alaska Measures of Progress test.

In the early stages of designing AMP, a group of Alaska educators defined what students should know and be able to do at various levels of achievement. After the testing, 128 select Alaskan educators met over the summer and engaged in an extensive process to determine the cutoff scores. Based on their performances, students were given scores of one, two, three or four. Level three and four meant they met standards, while one and two meant they “partially met standards”. The state eliminated the “proficient” and “not proficient” characterizations, and with it the traditional pass-fail result.

Education curriculum and standards are hotly debated subjects in all states and Alaska is no exception. So it probably didn’t surprise anyone that opposition to the new AMP testing standards arose immediately. A proposal to file legislation repealing the new standards surfaced, as did a letter from 19 rural school district superintendents with concerns that the test did not provide adequate tools to guide curriculum changes. The Alaska Superintendents Association said in a statement that the standardized assessment, a condition of Alaska’s waiver from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, did not provide credible reports and should not be continued.

Understandably, there is also concern among rural educators who feel the test could be biased in that it may feature questions that are more language-involved and disadvantage students not exposed to “urban factors” referenced in the test. Furthermore, curriculum changes take time and improvements in scores may be slow to change at first. However, Mike Hanley, the state education commissioner, believes all these concerns are being addressed and remains optimistic that scores will improve over time as curriculum and instruction methods change to adapt to the new standards. In addition, there is good news in that pending changes to the old “No Child Left Behind” federal legislation promise to transfer more control of educational matters to state and local authorities.

While state education officials must recognize the cultural, geographic and political landscape in Alaska in designing and implementing these changes, I believe everyone is trying to achieve the same goal: to bring Alaska students up to an academic level that will allow them to pursue whatever life and career plans they may choose. Aren’t we just fooling ourselves if we test at a bar that is so low most students pass but many still cannot meet the challenges in today’s world?

• Win Gruening lives in Juneau.

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