Alaska's fourth-grade and eighth-grade students again scored below national averages on the reading and math tests administered by the federal government, according to results from the 2017 tests released late Monday.
Alaska's students have never done very well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the "nation's report card," but the new results showed Alaska's scores declining from 2015, and the gap widening between the state's average scores and the nation's.
"It's not a surprise, though it's very, very dissatisfying to see where we rank," said Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson.
On the fourth-grade reading test in 2017, Alaska's average score was the lowest among all states, the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense schools. On the three other tests, Alaska was not dead last, but ranked toward the bottom.
The national test results also continue to show big racial achievement gaps in Alaska.
Alaska education officials, including Johnson, said the 2017 test scores further underscore the need for the state to unite behind improving Alaska's schools. Fixes are already underway, they said. Some also cautioned that the test scores only show a narrow picture of education in Alaska, focusing on just math and reading in two grades, at one point in time.
"At best, these test scores give us a little peek about what's going on in our system and, in this particular case, they're showing a really wide gap between some of our best learners and some of our most-struggling students," said Tim Parker, president of Alaska's National Education Association teachers union. "And we know that. We deal with that every day."
'A common yardstick'
The National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, administers the national math and reading tests to a sampling of students in grades 4 and 8 every other year.
Alaska started participating in the test in 2003, when it became mandatory for all states.
In 2017, about 2,200 students from about 130 of Alaska's public schools took each test, according to the the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
The tests were given between Jan. 30 and March 10. A majority of students used tablets for the first time to take the exams, instead of paper and pencil.
The government does not provide information about which schools or districts in Alaska participated in the exams. The scores are also not broken down by district or school.
Instead the tests aim to show more broadly how America's students, as well as students in individual states, are doing over time. They serve as a barometer of student achievement.
"We're a common yardstick," said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.
For Alaska, the tests are the only common yardstick to gauge how students in grades 4 and 8 stack up to their Outside peers in reading and math.
Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop said the test scores show Alaska is behind.
"I'm not going to make excuses. We just need to come together and get this thing figured out," she said.
Students, she said, "are going to get left behind if we don't do something."
Alaska's declining test scores
At the national level, scores remained relatively flat between 2015 and 2017, except in eighth-grade reading where scores increased.
Alaska and Vermont were the only states to see their average scores drop on three of the four tests from 2015 to 2017.
Alaska's eighth-grade reading scores had no significant change, according to the results. But its average scores on the math tests were the lowest recorded in the state in years. In fourth-grade reading, the average score was the lowest ever for Alaska.
The National Center for Education Statistics also released data Monday on how many students it considered "proficient" in reading and math based on the 2017 exam scores.
Scoring "proficient" means the student has shown "solid academic performance" with "challenging subject matter," according to the agency.
Here are the percentages of public school students who scored proficient or better:
• Fourth-grade reading
Nationwide, 2017 test: 35 percent
Alaska, 2017 test: 28 percent
Alaska, 2015 test: 30 percent
• Eighth-grade reading
Nationwide, 2017: 35 percent
Alaska, 2017: 26 percent
Alaska, 2015: 31 percent
• Fourth-grade math
Nationwide, 2017: 40 percent
Alaska, 2017: 32 percent
Alaska, 2015: 35 percent
• Eighth-grade math
Nationwide, 2017: 33 percent
Alaska, 2017: 29 percent
Alaska, 2015: 32 percent
Johnson said the standards used for the national exams in both math and reading are similar to what Alaska wants its students to know.
Alaska's scores on the exams are also similar to how students did on statewide standardized tests in 2017, when more than half of the students who took the exam failed to meet grade-level academic standards in English language arts and math.
The national test results show persistent achievement gaps in Alaska.
In fourth-grade reading, for example, the average score for white students was 223 on a 500-point scale. That's 36 points higher than the average score for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students and 54 points higher than the average score for Alaska Native/American Indian students.
Across the tests, Native students in Alaska scored at least 36 points below their white peers.
Diane Hirshberg, a professor of education policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said the country continues to struggle with "models of education grounded in very Western paradigms that may not work for most children."
"The questions about our Alaska Native youth are really important because if we figure out how to reach all of our indigenous youth, we would have figured out how to reach all of our children," she said.
There are many different ways to approach teaching and learning, she said. Determining the best way to reach more students requires investment — investment in studying what works in classrooms and investment in more training for teachers. In urban schools, it means keeping class sizes smaller. In rural schools, it means finding better ways to provide teachers with more support so they don't leave after just a few years, she said.
The tests scores released also show students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, a poverty indicator, had lower average scores across the tests compared to their non-eligible peers. Test scores for students learning English and students with disabilities were also lower.
Hirshberg said it's difficult to say what specific factors led to Alaska's scores on these exams without more information about the sample of students tested. Without that information, she said, it's unclear how accurately those tested represent the overall student population in Alaska.
"We have to take it as a snapshot and the snapshot is, overall, compared with other places in the country, we are consistently not performing well," she said. "But this does not allow us to ask why."
Parker, president of the statewide teachers union, said teachers are testing their students often and know what level each student is at in each subject every day.
In contrast, he said, the national exams only ask a sample of students about two subjects. They do not test students on other parts of their education, including art, civics, athletics and their career and technical skills.
"They're a 30,000-foot-level view of how things are going in general in some areas of our education system," he said.
Parker said the bigger education issue in Alaska that deserves focus is the lack of adequate funding for public schools and how that has led to a serious problem attracting and keeping good teachers.
Bishop and Johnson said they hope the test scores prompt the community to act.
"I hope everybody will take it seriously and pay attention and call the (education) department, call their local school district, call their local school, ask questions and ask how they can be part of closing this achievement gap we have in our state," Johnson said.
Johnson said there's not one or two reasons for Alaska's worsening scores on the 2017 tests or persistent achievement gaps. It's a complex issue.
Bishop said schools must take students at the level they're at when they arrive, and then work to move them forward.
Students are coming to the district from many different places and with many different abilities, she said. They're also not immune from the societal problems that vex the community, including crime, opioids and domestic violence.
"Schools are just a microcosm of the greater community and what's happening out in our world goes right into our schools," Bishop said. "Not only are we held accountable to teach the kids, but we have to take care of them and address all those other things. It's not an excuse, it's just a reality of where we are."
Schools are also still working on transitioning to Alaska's more challenging academic standards, which were adopted in 2012, Bishop said.
Last school year, the Anchorage School Board put $3 million toward new English language arts curriculum for elementary schools. The district received feedback that it was too difficult for students, Bishop said. But, she said, it really is just better aligned with the more rigorous standards.
At a state level, Johnson said, hundreds of people over the past year have participated in "Alaska's Education Challenge," an effort to improve schools and close those gaps. Johnson believes that work will help boost academic results, as will a new school accountability system developed by the department.
But to really improve education and student learning, there needs to be buy-in from the whole state, he said.
"We can't look to one teacher in one classroom or one principal or one school district or one school board or one legislature to address the issues that we have in our public education system," Johnson said.
"If we are going to move up the list in comparison to other states in our country, it's going to take a shared commitment by all Alaskans."