Palin opts out of test standard for education

PLANNING: Alaska is one of only four states not to join effort.

June 1, 2009 

Gov. Sarah Palin's decision to opt out of an effort to write nationwide education standards in reading and math has some Alaska educators cheering and others dismayed.

Palin on Sunday rejected what nearly all other states have accepted and said Alaska has chosen to "monitor but not yet actively participate" in the process of standardizing K-12 education.

Forty-six states have signed on to the initiative to devise standards for reading and math testing that would let the performance of students in one state be compared with those in another.

The effort is in its development stages, with state and federal education officials, and others, trying to agree on what the core standards should be. Agreeing to adopt the standards is a step for later. Besides Alaska, the other states that have turned away from the effort are Missouri, South Carolina and Texas.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau, who is in charge of nearly half of Alaska's 120,000 public school students, said she was disappointed with the governor's decision. As a parent and educator, she said, she wants to know how Alaska's kids compare.

But other educators said Palin is right to be wary of outside standards being imported to Alaska.

The Palin decision came 10 days after she turned away $28.6 million in federal stimulus money for weatherization and renewable energy projects. Palin said taking the money would have required the state to follow a federal demand and "entice" local communities to adopt building codes. Legislators disagreed and said there were no meaningful strings attached to that money.

National reading and math tests could end the era of each state living in its own education silo, with its own customized tests. There are a few nationalized tests, such as the TerraNova in 5th and 7th grades, but no tests compare students from one state to the next consistently.

SAT and ACT tests are taken nationwide but usually only by college-bound students.

Proponents say nationalized standards would allow states to better monitor how they are doing and allow the United States to compare its students to those in other countries. The U.S. is largely considered to be behind other wealthy nations in education.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are working on the initiative, and participants developing the standards include the College Board.

In a Sunday press release, Palin said, "Alaska's decision not to participate until after we monitor this is based on our desire to spend our time and public resources to improve instruction in the classroom and to form productive relationships between schools and the communities they serve."

It is not clear what public resources Palin was referring to. Her office referred all questions to Larry LeDoux, state education commissioner. He said the resources wouldn't necessarily be used now but later when the standards were adopted, when changing curriculum in the state would cost millions of dollars.

Palin is taking the wait-and-see stance and not eliminating the option of adopting the standards later. "If this initiative produces useful results, Alaska will remain free to incorporate them in our own standards," she wrote.

Comeau worries that by joining in the process later, Alaska will be forced to accept what other states dictate.

LeDoux stands behind the governor's decision. He says if Alaska had supported the initiative now, there is an implied consent to adopt the standards later. And he's not sure that's in Alaska's best interest.

Alaska has unique education challenges compared to other states. Education in the Bush often consists of multigrade classrooms. State educators have long complained at the rigid mandates under the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.

"We just don't want to give up everything to the feds," LeDoux said.

LeDoux also says there is nothing for Alaska to contribute to the standards conversation -- because the conversation has already happened. It is building on a project that several dozen states have been working on for years, called the American Diploma Project.

"We're being asked to jump on a bandwagon," he said.

John Pile, executive director of the Alaska Association of Elementary School Principals, supports the governor's choice but said national tests would help teachers with kids who move into Alaska from other states. Given the large number of students who transfer in and out of Alaska, that would be especially helpful.

Barb Angaiak, president of the teacher's union, the National Education Association-Alaska, echoed a similar sentiment. "It's a good idea to proceed with caution before we blindly sign on to something."

Find Megan Holland online at or call 257-4343.

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