Compass: Don't let myths get in the way of schools' progress

Alaskans want excellence from our public education system, and they want a good value for our investments. Our children are our greatest resource, and Alaska depends on them growing into the leaders and competitive workforce it needs to build a thriving future.

With the new school year underway, preparing our children for tomorrow's challenges is on many Alaskans' minds. There are areas for improvement in our public education system, and it will take all of us listening, participating, and giving input to come up with the best ideas to ensure excellence and accountability in Alaska's schools.

That's why I'm thrilled to be part of a coalition, including the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, Alaska PTA, Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children, NEA-Alaska, and Rep. Bob Lynn, sponsoring Legislators and Leaders in the Classroom this October to provide decision-makers with hands-on experience about what is happening in our schools.

As we engage in a community conversation about improving student performance, it is important to separate myth from fact. The following three myths have put up barriers to student progress in Alaska.

• Myth: The AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) determination based on standardized testing tells you everything about student and school performance.

• Fact: Standardized testing is one metric that can provide meaningful information about student performance. However, due to the way the test results are reported, broken down by race, ethnicity, special needs, etc., poor performance by just a few students can lead to an entire school failing. For example, consider my friend's son, who is of mixed heritage. When the child is identified in the demographics as an Alaska Native, it makes the difference between the school passing or failing in that specific category; and thereby whether or not the school makes AYP. With so much diversity in our schools, this segregated approach isn't telling the whole story.

• Myth: Graduation rates are terribly low and aren't showing signs of improvement.

• Fact: Since 2002, Alaska graduation rates have increased by 10 percent, three times faster than the national average. In addition, since the 2004-2005 school year, the number of students who drop out each year in Alaska has declined 20 percent. While Alaska still has room for improvement, we need to celebrate success, while we push for better results. I support the United Way's 90 percent by 2020 Initiative, now also endorsed by the Anchorage School District, as a goal we must achieve.

We should also keep in mind how graduation rates are calculated. Did you know the state considers a student who fails one class his/her senior year and must re-take that class in the summer a dropout? The same is true for students who have difficultly learning and must spend an extra semester to complete required course work. While these students aren't completing high school in the ideal four-year time frame, they are completing quickly thereafter and are on a path for success in their adult life. By not counting them, we very publicly announce that we "gave up" on them.

• Myth: Alaska spends more on education than other states.

• Fact: Alaska is the ninth-most expensive state to live in, so when comparing the amount spent on student education and our largely rural state with excessive energy costs, we must keep in mind that costs are always higher here. When we compare spending to states like South Dakota and Mississippi, among those with the lowest cost of living, our spending will always seem high.

In fact, according to the 2012 NEA Rankings & Estimates, when we look at state and local government expenditures for all education as a percentage of direct general expenditures, Alaska is dead last at 50.

Education is an investment, not only in our children's future, but in our state's. Through the hard work and dedication of teachers, parents, students and many others, Alaska's schools are improving. I look forward to working with these groups and the Legislature to ensure our students get the education they'll need to succeed and lead Alaska into a bright future.

Rep. Geran Tarr represents the northeast Anchorage neighborhoods of Mountain View, Airport Heights and Russian Jack in the state House of Representatives.