The State Board of Education and Early Development this week altered the formula used to evaluate Alaska schools in what it said was an attempt to make the five-star rating system a fairer and more realistic picture of the performance of alternative and small rural schools.
Since 2013, the Alaska School Performance Index has rated every Alaska school on a 100-point scale. Schools get points for test scores, improvement on tests, attendance, work-readiness assessments and graduation rates. A one- to five-star rating, meant to be an easy snapshot of a school's overall performance for the public, is also assigned.
But in the first year of the ASPI ratings, almost all alternative programs catering to troubled students ended up with low one- or two-star ratings.
"We aren't using ASPI as a way to make schools look bad or especially to make them look bad in an unfair way," said Eric Fry, a state Department of Education and Early Childhood Development spokesman. "We recognized it was really hard for alternative schools to show up well on our index and we weren't taking into account their reality."
This week's rule change relaxes attendance and graduation expectations for such schools and puts increased weight on improvement rather than raw test scores.
For example, regular high schools are judged 20 percent on test scores and 40 percent on student improvement on test scores in one metric. After the rule change, alternative schools will be judged on 10 percent achievement and 50 percent improvement.
"We're giving them more credit for students improving because they're taking some of the toughest students," said Fry.
The board also allowed small schools with fewer than six students in the graduating class to average three years of graduation rate data for their rankings.
In a tiny class, a single student failing to graduate can cause a major statistical fluctuation that might not give the true picture of the situation, Fry said.
Dozens of teachers and administrators from alternative programs and small schools submitted comments before the changes.
One teacher from the Yukon-Kuskokwim School District said her school had only one student scheduled to graduate next year.
"We are working hard to support that senior so he will graduate, but with such a small number if the student doesn't graduate it would really skew our graduation indicator," wrote Nancy Mason, in a public comment published with the board's meeting materials.
When Alaska received a waiver for the federal No Child Left Behind standards in 2013 it switched from the former "adequate yearly progress" measure to the ASPI system, which is supposed to provide a more detailed and relevant measure of school progress to Alaskans.
The ratings aren't toothless. Beyond functioning as a school's data snapshot to the public, schools with a low ASPI rating must submit plans for improvement.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS