First-year PEAKS results show peninsula students ahead of state

The first year’s results of the state’s new standardized public school assessments show that students in general aren’t doing as well as they could, but Kenai Peninsula students are doing better than other districts.

This is the first year the state has used the Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools, or PEAKS, test. The standards for measuring student progress have changed, as have the testing methods, so 2017 will serve as a baseline data year for students in the future to gauge themselves against. However, the first year’s results do track with general trends in districts and classrooms seen in other assessments, giving the state a general idea of how students are doing over time, said Erin Hardin, the public information officer for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

“Although PEAKS and the Alaska Measures of Progress assessments are based on the same standards, comparisons can’t be made because the scales are not the same,” she said. “The scales for their scores and their achievement levels are different, and that’s why comparisons are inappropriate. That said, they tell a similar story.”

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s results came out slightly ahead of the general statewide numbers, both overall and in each individual grade level. In the test, administered last spring, Kenai Peninsula students led the statewide average in English language arts proficiency by more than 7 percent, in mathematics by approximately 5 percent and in science by approximately 4 percent, according to district-specific PEAKS data.

The majority of students are still below proficiency in English and math by the new test’s standards, according to the Department of Education’s districtwide results for the peninsula. Across the grade levels, about 53 percent are below proficiency on English language arts and about 62.7 percent below proficiency in mathematics. The majority of students are proficient in science, however, with 57.5 percent meeting proficiency standards.

“PEAKS is one part of the overall picture about how well our students and schools succeed,” said Sean Dusek, superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, in a Friday news release. “(Kenai Peninsula Borough School District) focuses on continual improvement, creating lifelong learners, and believes the shift toward a greater emphasis on problem solving skills and critical thinking will make a significant, positive difference on all assessments that are implemented in our schools.”

The results don’t necessarily mean students aren’t performing as well, said Kenai Peninsula Borough School District spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff. The new test’s standards are more rigorous and students are still getting used to the testing methods, so as they get used to them, their scores will likely improve, she said.

“I think it’s important to note that student achievement hasn’t declined and what is expected of students is different than prior tests,” she said.

The school district and the state will both gather several years of the PEAKS data before making any recommendations. PEAKS scores don’t affect how students are graded in school and it isn’t a pass-fail test, Erkeneff said.

PEAKS is the new test for the state, instituted after a snarled system led to interrupted testing in 2016 and questionable data integrity on the state’s Alaska Measures of Progress, or AMP, test was rolled out in 2015. The state threw out the AMP and Alaska Alternate assessments in January 2016, ending the contract with the vendor early and seeking a new vendor.

The Department of Education and Early Development announced it had chosen Data Recognition Corp. as its new assessment vendor in December 2016. After convening panels of Alaska educators to determine the baseline standards for what constitutes proficiency, the State Board of Education and Early Development proposed its new score ranges in June 2017, according to a June 14 news release, and subsequently approved them in July.

They’re not hard-and-fast thresholds for competency — rather, the statewide assessments are another data point showing how students are doing overall, Erkeneff said.

“There are multiple points throughout every school year,” she said. “…The PEAKS test is given to all students in Alaska. Then we can compare our graduation rate, which is increasing, and we look at several assessments.”

It’s similar for the state, Hardin said. Though this is the first year of PEAKS data, it generally tracks with other data points the state uses to evaluate students, but isn’t comparable to former years’ assessments or to other states’ standardized tests. To compare states, the federal government uses the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The state uses other assessments, like the Alaska Developmental Profile for kindergarten students, to help gauge progress. That measure is separate from the PEAKS and was changed this year, but is another indicator for the state to tell how prepared students are, Hardin said.

“They’re not linked in terms of scores in any way, but again, another indicator for us to see how our students are doing,” she said.

Specifically determining how well students are doing across districts, states and the nation is difficult — states use different standards and a student who doesn’t do well on a test may be as well or better prepared than others outside a testing context. Erkeneff said one of the focuses for the Board of Education and the district administration in the next three years is the development of personalized learning with Education Elements, a technology partner, to help teachers specifically target student learning objectives. PEAKS is one way to see how students are doing, but the district focuses on the overall picture, Erkeneff said.

“The board will definltely take a look at where we are,” she said. “We can always improve.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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