Compass: School numbers can be a bogus measure of achievement

Ron Fuhrer's Compass piece, "Six principles will improve student learning (May 8)" cites three reasons to believe that "Alaska's educators are making great strides." Each of these claims is flawed.

First, Mr. Fuhrer indicates graduation rates have improved greatly. He cites a 10 percent increase and indicates this is three times faster than the national average. While this may indicate progress, it can just as easily indicate nothing at all. Alaska could become the only state in the union to have a perfect graduation rate. All we need to do is allow children to obtain a high school diploma by simply providing one to them upon withdrawal from school regardless of attendance, completion of graduation requirements, demonstration of having acquired knowledge, and/or having developed the skills associated with the purposes of schooling.

Graduation rates are not a reliable indicator of education success. There are far too many instances of diplomas being granted to individuals lacking basic reading, writing and math skills for this statistic to be meaningful.

The necessity for universities and colleges across the country to provide remedial services to prepare students for post-secondary courses illustrates that graduation rates are not indicative of success. According to an article on, four in 10 high school graduates is required to take remedial courses when they start college. That is just the beginning of troubling statistics from the post-high school world of education.

Additionally, the challenges that many businesses experience in finding qualified employees must also be considered. Recently, the Daily News published an article about a law firm with a policy of only hiring individuals who have earned a bachelor's degree. We must ask why this is the case. I suggest that they, like many other employers, found that too often high school graduation was not an indication achievement, ability or preparation for work.

Second, Mr. Fuhrer cites Alaska's standing as third in the nation for academic growth between 4th and 8th grade. This is interesting and might be good news, but it might also be not-so-good news, or perhaps even bad news. In order to determine what we are dealing with, we need to know where Alaska's children rank in the 4th and 8th grades. At the recent Mayors Education Summit, statistics regarding the achievement of Alaska's students placed Alaska at the bottom of the pack.

The Report on Community Conversation for the Mayor's Education Summit, Spring 2012, states the following:

"National Assessment of Education (NAEP) is a nationwide test given to representative samples of 4th, 8th and 12th graders in each state; scores in reading and math (and sometimes writing and science) are compared from state to state. Compared to other states, Alaska students perform near the bottom in 4th grade math and reading. Due in part to intense teacher effort, Alaska students gain significant ground in later grades, performing close to or slightly above the national average in 8th grade math and reading."

The good news in Alaska's ranking as third in the nation for growth between 4th and 8th grade is that it assures us that Alaska's children can, and do, learn when taught. The bad news: we don't know where they begin or where they end up.

Mr. Fuhrer's final evidence of successful education attainment in Alaska was stated as follows: "...our high school students are outperforming the national average in ACT and SAT test results." Again, can we tell what this means about the educational achievements of high school students in Alaska? The answer, simply put, is no. In 2012, 35 percent of Alaska graduates took the ACT test and of those 26 percent demonstrated college readiness in reading, writing, math and science. Putting this into concrete terms, we find that out of every 100 high school graduates in Alaska, 9 are shown to be prepared for entry-level college course work.

The people of Alaska expect, and deserve, honest appraisals of achievement.

Allison Smith, mother of five children, has been involved in public, private and home-school education communities. She lives in Anchorage.