More than 60 percent of Alaska's public school students who took this year's statewide standardized tests failed to meet grade-level academic standards in English language arts and math, according to data from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
Students statewide fared a bit better on the statewide science exam, with roughly half of them meeting standards.
The scores are from the brand-new statewide standardized test, called Performance Evaluation for Alaska's Schools, or PEAKS, that tested students in English and math this spring. Students in just three grades also took the Alaska Science Assessment.
Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson said in a press briefing Wednesday that the scores further highlighted the need to improve the state's education system — work that he said is already underway.
"We have to be dissatisfied with the current results that we're getting," he said.
About 32 percent of Alaska's students scored proficient or higher in math this year — meaning they met grade-level academic standards. In English, about 38 percent of students met standards, and in science, 47 percent of students did.
The math and English exams measured students on academic standards Alaska adopted in 2012, which the education department describes as "more rigorous." The science standards have not been updated since 2006.
Here are the statewide scores:
The percent of students statewide meeting English standards peaked in sixth grade at about 45 percent.
The education department said the statewide score for all grades broke down further to 7.7 percent of students scoring advanced, 30.7 percent scoring proficient, 30.8 percent scoring below proficient and 30.8 percent scoring far below proficient.
The department defines "proficient" as "demonstrating knowledge and skills of current grade-level content," while those scoring advanced know "complex grade-level content." Students scoring below proficient "partially" meet the standards and those scoring far below proficient have "significant gaps in knowledge and skills of current grade-level content," according to the department.
The percent of students scoring at least proficient on the math standardized test peaked in third grade and then fell.
A further breakdown of the results for all grades showed 3.9 percent of students scoring advanced, 27.9 percent scoring proficient, 51.1 percent scoring below proficient and 17 percent scoring far below proficient.
Only students in grades four, eight and 10 took the science standardized test.
The statewide score broke down to 19.9 percent of students scoring advanced, 26.6 percent scoring proficient, 24.5 percent scoring below proficient and 29 percent scoring far below proficient.
Scores vary widely
The 2017 test scores varied widely across Alaska school districts, with the state's three largest districts — Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks — scoring above the statewide average in English, math and science, according to data the department published online Friday evening.
Still, in Anchorage that meant more than half of students did not meet standards.
"We're all dissatisfied. It is not where we want to be, obviously," said Anchorage schools Superintendent Deena Bishop. "So we have improvements to make."
Bishop said the district uses the standardized test scores as one of many measurements of achievement, and while they're important, they're limited in scope.
"There's nothing in here that says, 'Can your kids code? Can your kids problem-solve?'" she said.
In Anchorage, about 36 percent of students scored proficient or higher in math, 40 percent scored proficient or higher in English and 47 percent scored at least proficient in science — just a few tenths of a percentage point above the state average.
Melanie Hadaway, executive director of teaching and learning at the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, said the district will not make "big programmatic decisions" based on just one year of PEAKS data. Until there are multiple years of data, it's unclear if the scores indicate a trend, she said. Plus, she said, the scores only represent one moment in time.
"It's a one-shot snapshot," she said. "It's 'How did our kids do against the standards during this one time in the spring?'"
About 37 percent of students in Fairbanks scored proficient or above in math, 41 percent in English and 52 percent in science. At the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, about 35 percent of students score proficient in math, 48 percent in English and 56 percent in science.
In some other school districts, the percentage of students meeting grade-level standards was in the teens and single digits on the 2017 exams.
In the Northwest Arctic Borough School District based in Kotzebue, about 11 percent of students scored proficient or higher on the English exam, 8 percent on the math exam and 11 percent on the science exam. In the Lower Kuskokwim School District headquartered in Bethel, about 7 percent of students scored at least proficient on the English exam, 7 percent on the math exam and 15 percent on the science exam.
"This is one of the ways that we know which schools are in most need of support from the department," said Brian Laurent, data management supervisor at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
Laurent said the test scores are "just one indicator of several" that will make up a school's rating in the state's accountability system.
A new baseline
Since Alaska's annual standardized exams test students on state-specific standards, the results cannot be directly compared to any other state's standardized test scores, according to the state education department.
The test results also cannot be compared to previous years of standardized test scores in Alaska, Laurent said. A new standardized test meant educators had to establish new scoring guidelines, he said.
"Once we get two years' worth of data, then we can start looking at individual and school-level growth," Laurent said.
Alaska has had three different standardized tests in four years. In 2016, the education department canceled the exam altogether.
Still, the 2017 and the 2015 test results paint a similar picture — a majority of Alaska's students aren't meeting the state's academic standards.
Both exams tested students on Alaska's latest English language arts and math standards adopted in 2012.
On the 2015 exam, about 35 percent of the students who took the test met the English standards and 31 percent of students met the standards in math.
At the time, the Anchorage School Board president described those results as a "wake-up call."
They contrasted sharply with the 2014 scores that tested students on the old academic standards. The scores showed about three-quarters of students meeting those standards in reading, writing and math.
The 2015 and 2017 scores more closely align with Alaska's performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national math and reading standardized test.
Laurent said the state was happy with the PEAKS exam and plans to use it again next spring.
To view the 2017 test results at your district and school, visit education.alaska.gov.