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Anchorage School District falls short of yearly proficiency goals, report says

Jerzy Shedlock

Anchorage public school students showed decreases in reading proficiency last year while students’ competence in writing and math slightly increased, according to the district’s annual Profile of Performance. Ultimately, the district failed to meet its self-imposed targets for the school year -- it hopes to achieve 90 percent proficiency in reading, writing and math by 2020.

The 2012-2013 profile includes findings on the Anchorage School District’s shifting demographics, graduation, dropout and attendance rates. 

District officials advertise the report as an easy way for parents to see how their kids’ schools are performing. Included with the profile is a findings report, observations the authors made when reviewing copious amounts of data. The district -- which oversees about 48,000 students and employs more than 3,000 teachers -- faces an uncertain future as cash for education dwindles amid statewide belt-tightening. Its findings will help guide those decisions.  

Missing the proficiency marks

The report also considers trends, and the data show flat and decreasing proficiency scores in reading, writing and math, three subjects measured by various state and federally mandated tests.

The district's seven-year trend for reading shows a decrease in proficiency from 85.3 percent to 80.6 percent. Writing and math have been relatively flat over the same time period, with slight increases from 2012 to 2013. ASD failed to meet its targets for the school year, which may make the goals of Destination 2020 -- the district’s comprehensive, multi-year plan to increase student achievement -- harder to reach. Superintendent Ed Graff said the district will build upon programs already in place to stay on track.

“We’re not where we want to be, but we continue to recognize the urgency to achieve those goals, and we are aligned in our efforts to do so,” Graff said. “That’s on all levels, from the school board to administrators to school staff.”

The district has academic plans it continuously revises to help teachers and parents understand the goals, he added.

A total of 77.5 percent of students are considered proficient in writing, a percentage point and a half below the district’s goal for the year. And the number of students who can write at their grade levels increased by a mere tenth of a percentage point over the previous year.

The district had its greatest increases in math for 2013. Students in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, ninth and 10th grades all showed improvement. However, the seven-year trend shows decreases in all 12 reported subgroups, such as gender and different races.

Only third graders improved their reading skills. Alaska Natives and American Indians, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders -- as well as students whose primary language is not English -- made the most progress. About 79 percent of those students are now proficient, a 10-point increase from last year.

But the overall cause of the improvement is unclear, the authors wrote. “ASD has systematically implemented a variety of initiatives at all elementary grade levels (districtwide),” such as universal screenings, monitoring progress and a shift to Common Core Standards. “Any one or combination of several of these initiatives could impact proficiency.”

20 percent increase in economically disadvantaged students

Alaska Natives’ reading skills are improving, but there are fewer of Alaska’s first peoples in the district. Ten years of reports show a 4.7 percent declines in Natives. There are fewer African American and white students and more Hispanic and mixed-race students, according to the report.

But no change in demographics is more dramatic than that of poor students. Within nine years, the district has added 10,378 economically disadvantaged students, those the district sees as possibly having trouble learning due to family, social or economic circumstances. Graff said it is unclear why the number increased so much.

Average income and the number of people on public assistance in Anchorage did not change significantly from 2000 to 2011, said state economist Neil Fried. Anchorage residents living in poverty increased slightly. The percentage of people living below the poverty line increased from 5.1 percent to 5.4 percent. The group with the highest level of poverty are single mothers at 18.4 percent of the total, according to Fried.

A household of three that brings home less than $24,410 a year is considered below the poverty line in Alaska.

In spite of the population shift, the number of Title I schools, those receiving federal funds to improve academic achievement for low-income students, has stayed constant at 25 in a district of about 100 schools. The district’s response entails rearranging support services to schools performing below expectations, the report says.

Inherently, economically disadvantaged students come with different needs, Graff said.

“I think what (ASD) will do is look at opportunities that support students as early as possible, like preschool programs,” the superintendent said, as well as “increase conversations with the community about what the needs for these students look like.”

Graduation increasing and dropouts decreasing

Although the district faces challenges such as teaching students who require more services and flat to small gains in subject proficiencies, there are some silver linings among the findings. Student graduation and dropout rates are improving.

ASD calculates its graduation rate in two ways: four- and five-year cohorts. The students who finish school in the traditional four-year span increased 5.2 percent from 2011 to 2013, and the five-year group increased 4.1 percent, the report says.

And the district experienced its highest graduation rate in recent years, as 76.2 percent of students nabbed a high school diploma. ASD exceed its 2020 goal by more than a percentage point, too.

Fewer Alaska Natives are graduating compared to their peers. During the 2012-2013 school year within the four-year group, a little over half of them completed high schools, though that’s 11.4 percent more than the number of Natives who graduated last year.

The district’s dropout rate stands at 3.7 percent, exceeding the target for the school year.

Email Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com or follow him on Twitter at @jerzyms.