State English, math test results show room to improve

Most Alaska students do not meet new state math and English proficiency standards, but that does not come as a surprise to the Department of Education and Early Development.

Education Commissioner Mike Hanley said the results of the Alaska Measures of Progress, or AMP, standardized test released Nov. 9 show students and teachers are still adjusting to new, more stringent achievement levels.

The first AMP tests were given to students in grades three through 10 late last March.

Statewide and across all grade levels, 44 percent of the nearly 73,000 students tested met AMP standards for English language arts, while 31 percent of students met math standards.

Achievement levels generally decreased for both subjects as grade levels increased. Less than 29 percent of 10th graders met English standards, and 20 percent met the math goals. At the other end of the spectrum, 53 percent of 10th graders tested at the lowest level — meaning significant gaps in knowledge and skill could exist, according to a description of the four-level evaluation released by the state — and a quarter were also in the lowest level for English.

“I did have the full expectation that the number of students meeting standards would be much lower,” than other standardized tests, Hanley said. “If they weren’t I would question, did we really raise the bar? Have we really done what we thought we were going to do?”

Hanley made his remarks at a Nov. 9 press briefing following the release of the test results.

He said it would likely take time for students to catch up to more stringent academic standards. For example, Alaska students long prepared to take basic algebra courses in ninth and 10th grade. Now, those courses start in eighth grade, steepening the curve and likely impacting the first AMP results, Hanley described.

“We’re new in this process and I think we’re going to see a leveling of that (decreasing performance) trend,” he said.

The AMP tests replace the state’s Standards Based Assessment, which left students ill-equipped for life after secondary school, state education leaders decided in 2010.

Upwards of 80 percent of students were deemed proficient in English, math and science under Standards Based Assessment, or SBA, curriculums. However, only about 35 percent of those same students were proficient based on National Assessment of Education Progress guidelines, according to Hanley.

Additionally, the University of Alaska System informed secondary education officials that half of its students take remedial English and math courses, which don’t count for college credit, Hanley said. Bottom line, a public education in Alaska was not preparing students for higher education or the workforce.

Therefore, in 2012, the state adopted the AMP standards, which were vetted both by the University of Alaska and 200 state educators. More than 900 educators reviewed the AMP questions to make sure they matched the standards the test attempts to measure, according to an Education Department release.

The AMP is a “new trajectory of learning,” not another test on the pile, Hanley said. In recent years, the State of Alaska has done away with the fifth and seventh grade TerraNova reference test, as well as the high school qualifying exam.

The time since the AMP measures were adopted has been spent training teachers and school administrators on how to develop lesson plans to help students meet the new standards.

Hanley said the AMP standards were encouraged by the National Assessment of Education Progress guidelines, but not meant to align with them.

More money is not the answer for schools and districts that don’t show expected improvement in AMP results over the coming years, he said, but those not meeting goals will get the resources the state does have, AMP coaches.

“Our state system of support really targets our lowest performing schools,” Hanley said. “What we do is provide coaches — people who are educators, people who are in this field.”

“I have too much respect for our local districts and the experts at the local level to come in and say I can do better from Juneau, so we wan to come alongside districts and provide the resources that are necessary.”

The state has 12 such AMP coaches. Optimally, there would be two or three times that many coaches to help struggling districts, he said.

At nearly $18,200 per pupil, Alaska spends more than any state other than New York on secondary education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Eventually, science will be added to the AMP, as will performance tasks, which are longer, more detailed problems that require a student to show how they reached their conclusion, according to Hanley. Teachers will also have what he called “testlets” that can be used as quizzes to evaluate how students are absorbing individual instruction units throughout the year.

“The goal is not simply to get our kids across the stage to graduation, but to prepare them for what comes next — prepare them for college, prepare them for training, prepare them for the workforce,” Hanley said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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