Most students in Alaska and in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District aren’t proficient in math or reading, new state testing data show, and state leaders in education say now is the time to turn things around.
Most — but not all — third through ninth grade students in Alaska took the inaugural Alaska System of Academic Readiness assessment earlier this year. That assessment, also called AK STAR, replaced Alaska’s Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools assessments and measures proficiency in math and English.
The first set of AK STAR results were published by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development last week. Those results show that while KPBSD’s proficiency levels are higher than statewide levels, most peninsula students are not considered proficient in reading or in math.
Across all participating grade levels and schools, AK STAR data show that about 33.9% of KPBSD students are considered proficient or advanced in English Language Arts. About 24.9% of students are considered proficient or advanced in math. Statewide, about 29.5% of students are considered proficient in English Language Arts, compared to about 22.9% of students in math.
Alaska’s fifth, eighth and 10th grade students also took the Alaska Science Assessment this year, which measures students’ knowledge of state science standards. Results from that assessment show that KPBSD has higher proficiency levels in science than students statewide, but that most students are still not considered proficient.
About 42.7% of KPBSD test takers were considered proficient or advanced. That’s compared to about 38.1% of students statewide.
DEED Commissioner Heidi Teshner last week offered a grim analysis of the statewide results. In response to inquiries about how the COVID-19 pandemic affected education, Teshner said during a Nov. 20 press conference that test results “were just as dissatisfactory before the pandemic.”
“We are in a situation that no state likes to be in,” Teshner said. “We have far too many students that are not proficient in the subject areas that are not just the foundation of the rest of the school, but for the economy and the entire society. I want to say that anyone who was surprised by the results really has not been paying attention.”
Academia has long been a sore spot for Alaska. U.S. News ranks the state 49th nationwide for pre-K through 12th grade education and, like other states around the country, Alaska is facing a shortage of teachers and other school staff in buildings. That’s on top of the impacts remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic had on students.
“Local control of schools is important, but it comes with great responsibility,” Teshner said. “We know what needs to change.”
This year’s AK STAR results come as schools throughout Alaska prepare to begin implementing some of the programs and protocols outlined in the Alaska Reads Act, which Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed into law in June. The legislation, among other things, created an early education program, a comprehensive reading intervention program and a school improvement reading program.
Teshner said last week that the longevity of Alaska’s struggles when it comes to education mean that the state is well-informed about what work is needed and where it’s needed to boost outcomes. She highlighted the positive implications of the Alaska Reads Act and federal COVID-19 funding for education, but said work is needed now.
“Our students who are in our schools this very moment … cannot afford for bureaucracies and educational institutions to change at a snail’s pace,” Teshner said. “Alaska’s children are just as capable as children anywhere else in the world and it is up to all of us to not squander that potential by failing to provide what they need to succeed.”
Within KPBSD, Assistant Superintendent Kari Dendurent on Monday had a less bleak outlook.
The initial round of results from AK STAR, Dendurent said, are a baseline statistic that will allow the district to measure growth moving forward. Because this was the first time AK STAR assessments were administered, it is not recommended that they be compared to standardized test results from other years, such as PEAKS.
“This is the first time that we’ve taken this, so we can’t ever compare it to anything before because this is our baseline, right?” Dendurent said. “So when we’re going to be doing this in the springtime, those results then we’ll be able to see where we’re growing.”
It’s also important to remember, Dendurent said, that the AK STAR results offer only one snapshot of information about some KPBSD students. The goal is to establish a baseline that the district can then compare to next year’s results to determine how much academic growth has occurred.
“I think the most important thing that we’re going to be looking at is, hopefully, the ‘needs support’ and ‘(approaching) proficiency’ is shrinking,” Dendurent said. “That’s going to be our ultimate goal.”
It’s that potential for change, Dendurent said, that should assuage parents concerned about their child’s test results as reflected by the first iteration of the AK STAR assessment.
“Baseline growth is what we really, really, really want to focus on, not to just be so upset about the different scores,” Dendurent said. “It’s like, OK, let’s look at what kind of growth is happening, what’s happening with your progress … and then what’s going to happen next year when we’re looking at this. If we don’t see growth from here, that would be where I would be alarmed.”
Dendurent said Monday that the effects of the Alaska Reads Act in KPBSD classrooms will be seen in the additional professional development opportunities district staff will receive. Some of the federal COVID-19 relief funds that the district received must be used to help catch up students who fell behind academically during the pandemic.
KPBSD received $20 million in a third tranche of federal COVID-19 relief funding, 20% of which is required to be used for learning recovery and remediation. Dendurent said Monday that the 20% of funds — about $4 million — has been largely concentrated toward summer programming and school instructional aides.
DEED Assessments Administrator Dr. Elizabeth Greninger rounded off last week’s press conference by saying that the AK STAR results, while less than ideal, should serve as a “call to action” for Alaska.
“Using this current data, the state and districts can ensure they’re making data-based decisions about initiatives, practices and instructional actions that are needed to improve student outcomes now and in subsequent years,” Greninger said. “We also know that classroom instruction must be responsive to the assessment data, giving opportunities for educators to understand and use this information, and to adjust their resources and strategies to best address the academic needs of students in their classrooms.”
AK STAR assessment results can be found on the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development website at education.alaska.gov/assessments/results. Per DEED, school districts are required to distribute student-level reports to families and educators by Dec. 9.