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NCLB: Most Alaska schools fail to meet federal progress standard

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

Alaska's education department announced in July that the state was granted a one-year reprieve from rising student proficiency targets required under the No Child Left Behind Act.

More than a decade after the act took effect, proficiency standards for math and English in Alaska schools will stay locked in at one goal, instead of making the annual jump to a higher percentage.

"We can all agree there's nearly universal unhappiness with the current law," said North Slope Borough School District Assistant Superintendent Lisa Skiles Parady. Parady also sits on the governing board for the American Association of School Administrators, representing Alaska at the national level.

"(There is) pressure on federal government to reduce that size and scope of that federal footprint," Parady said, "and certainly in Alaska we agree with that push."

Current standards in Alaska require a school to have 83 percent of students proficient in English on standardized testing, and 75 percent proficient in math — numbers that usually go up annually, but are now frozen for one year.

For the school year of 2011-2012, 46.5 percent of Alaska's 507 public schools made AYP. This is an increase in less than 1 percent since the previous school year.

Meeting this Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) is a major component of the act, and has been widely debated since its inception under the Bush administration. The annual increase in required passing percentage is intended to be a staggered march toward the federal law's mission of 100 percent of U.S. students proficient in math and English by 2014.

While supporters maintain the requirement establishes accountability within the American school system, others believe it places unreasonable demands within a too-large bureaucracy that doesn't allow for the varying needs and challenges of individual school systems.

That disparity is especially apparent in Alaska's rural school systems, said Aleutians East Borough Superintendent Tim Stathis.

"By creating Federal mandates far removed from the discussion at the local level...as in the Aleutians East Borough," Stathis said, "elements of the law actually interfere with positive progression as would be implemented by the administration, teachers, and support of parents based on immediate and locally-perceived needs and goals."

Stathis said the Act in Alaska is a giant step backward in many respects, and the current freeze just a small reprieve from a burden of standards completely out of touch with what is really happening in Alaska's rural schools.

"Personally, and I believe I speak for many of our teachers and principals, I would like to see NCLB completely eliminated," Stathis said. "Local school districts, supported by community involvement on one end, and facilitation of the State Department of Education on the other end, in support of our goals for excellence in education, can do a far greater job than mandates coming out of Washington, D.C."

Stathis is not alone in his opinion.

In the Bristol Bay Borough, Superintendent Jack Walsh -- who is the second Alaska rep on the American Association of School Administrators Governing Board -- said the freeze was immediately helpful to his district.

For the first year since the Act was signed, neither of the schools within the Bristol Bay Borough made AYP. However, when the freeze took effect, keeping percentage requirements at last year's level, both schools did in fact make the grade.

"That was a great day as it eliminated potential sanctions that are not pleasant," Walsh said.

He looks forward to a system that can maintain a level of accountability within schools, but without the penalties that often come along with failing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"I hope the future of education is more about encouraging growth and progress," Walsh said, "and less about threats and consequences. Recognizing many children need quality preschool programs to be better prepared as they enter public schools is another area that needs our state and national attention and support."

The NCLB Act, regardless of its future, said Walsh, will be remembered for forcing schools to take a hard look at all its working parts.

"The demands challenged all of us to look closely at what we do," Walsh said, "how it impacts achievement and learning — particularly for our lowest performing groups and individuals. Bristol Bay, and other rural districts had incredible challenges meeting the stringent professional qualifications and guidelines for teachers. There were challenges related to getting 100 percent of our students to be proficient or above by 2014 that we dealt with these last twelve years, all the time knowing it was a statistical impossibility on the day they signed the act into law."

Whether the grid-lock surrounding the NCLB Act ends next year, or five years from now, Walsh said there is a sturdy task awaiting the nation in creating the next legislation surrounding public school achievement standards.

As far as this year's decision to freeze proficiency standards, many of Alaska's rural administrators agree that it is a short breather in the midst of a long standing challenge.

"I think we applauds the department for making this application," Parady said, "and generally view the changes as positive."

For a more detailed background on the No Child Left Behind Act in Alaska, AYP data, a summary of consequences for schools that missed AYP and other data regarding individual school performance, visit the Alaska Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

This article was originally published by The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com