The Alaska education department has flagged about a fifth of the state’s public schools as needing additional support under its new accountability system.
The 107 schools were identified because of low graduation rates or poor performance on academic measures, either overall or among specific groups of students.
The state’s new school accountability system, “System for School Success,” was more than two years in the making. Alaska, like all states, had to build the new system to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015, and to continue receiving federal funds.
Alaska education officials gave mixed reviews to the new system, which rolled out its first set of school ratings at the end of October. In recent interviews, some described it as complicated and hard to understand. There are wonky calculations behind the ratings and data suppression rules that can make interpreting the reports, especially for small schools, tricky. Some school district administrators cautioned parents against using just the ratings when trying to determine the quality of schools.
“I don’t think any single system will accurately represent what public schools accomplish,” said Tim Vlasak, director of assessments, curriculum, federal programs and small schools at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
The accountability ratings are a method to convey a broad picture of school performance over time, highlighting schools' strengths and areas where they can improve, said Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson in a video posted on the state’s website.
The accountability system isn’t punitive and it isn’t high-stakes, meaning low ratings won’t impact teacher evaluations or result in a loss of funding, said Deborah Riddle, division operations manager for student learning, standards and support at the state education department. Schools labeled as needing additional support can, in fact, tap into additional federal funding.
How the accountability system works
The Every Students Succeeds Act has certain requirements for states’ accountability systems. However, it gives states more flexibility than No Child Left Behind did, Riddle said.
Alaska’s new system judges schools based on a list of metrics including standardized test scores, academic growth, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism and third-grade literacy.
Based on performance on the metrics — each metric carries a certain weight — nearly every one of Alaska’s 500 or so schools was given a rating from 0 to 100. The state called this number the “overall school index value.” The values ranged from 1.19 to 98.99. The average was 46.20, according to a report from the education department.
About 40 of the state’s smallest schools still went through a review but didn’t get an index value because they didn’t have enough students.
In addition to the index value, each school — no matter its size — also got one of three designations, which the state also refers to as levels of support.
What the school designations are and what they mean
• Comprehensive support and improvement: This means the school either had a four-year graduation rate last school year that was less than about 67 percent, or it’s a Title I school that performed among the bottom 5 percent of Title I schools based on the rating calculations. At Title I schools, a high percentage of students come from low-income families.
The state labeled 16 Alaska schools as performing in the bottom 5 percent and 67 as not meeting the graduation-rate standard. Each of the schools must come up with an evidence-based improvement plan that fixes the problems identified by the state. The state education department must approve the plans.
Schools in the bottom 5 percent can apply for a grant of up to $50,000 in federal funds to carry out their plans, and the schools with low graduation rates can apply for up to $25,000, said Brad Billings, school improvement administrator at the state education department.
School improvement coaches are also assigned to work with the lowest-performing Title I schools.
• Targeted support and improvement: This means the school has at least one subgroup of students — such as students in special education, English-language learners or racial minorities — that performed as poorly as the students in the bottom 5 percent of Title I schools, based on the ratings. The state identified 24 schools for targeted support.
These schools must also come up with an improvement plan that responds to the reasons for their designation. Those reports are submitted to and approved by the state education department and school district. The schools can apply for a grant of up to $25,000 in federal funds to implement their plans.
• Universal support: This is the label for everybody else. There were 399 schools that got this designation.
Alaska district and school officials are in the process of crafting the required improvement plans. Those plans are due in March. The schools could also have applied for a grant of up to $10,000 in federal funding to help pay for the creation of their plans, Billings said.
What education officials have to say
It’s not new for the state to have a school accountability system and evaluate its hundreds of public schools.
These are the first new ratings, however, in about four years.
The ratings were paused as the state bounced between three different standardized tests. The state’s previous school accountability system, the Alaska School Performance Index, awarded schools with one to five stars. Before that, the state used the Adequate Yearly Progress model.
The state education department will use the new accountability system to produce school reports each fall, Riddle said. The school ratings are mostly based on the previous school year’s data. There are some cases where the state uses multiple years of data because of a small number of students.
There were no surprises in the new ratings, said Mark Stock, deputy superintendent of the Anchorage School District.
The state’s largest school district had 10 schools that didn’t meet the graduation-rate standards. None of those were the district’s larger neighborhood high schools, Stock said. The 10 schools include AVAIL, a school for students who have dropped out of more traditional high schools, and Crossroads, a school for pregnant and parenting teens.
The district also had four schools flagged for poor performance among specific groups of students: Chester Valley Elementary, Family Partnership Charter School, Northwood ABC Elementary and Wonder Park Elementary.
“We don’t have many schools that fall into these categories,” Stock said. “We’ve already identified more issues than the school accountability system has identified.”
District and school officials are constantly digging through academic data and discussing where there are problems and where they can improve, said Stock and several other school administrators interviewed.
If parents want to dig into school data, Stock recommends they look at the school district’s online data dashboard.
Stock said he hopes the state keeps the same accountability system for the next several years so people can get used to it. He also hopes to see the system evolve over time.
People looking at the new system should remember that the average index value was about a 46, so don’t equate the 0 to 100 scale to letter grades, said Ellis Ott, a senior research analyst at the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.
“Don’t view 90 or higher as an A,” Ott said. He also pointed people to the district’s online trove of data.
At the Kuspuk School District, based in Aniak, Superintendent Bernard Grieve said he was still trying to wrap his head around some of the ratings. For instance, Johnnie John Sr. School in Crooked Creek enrolled 22 students in kindergarten to 12th grade. The school’s report showed no scores for several of the metrics and it got a rating of 10. It ranked in the bottom 5 percent of Title I schools.
“When you look at a lot of these reports you see n/a or 0 because the class sizes are so small and they can’t give you the information,” Grieve said.
The ratings feel a bit misleading, he said.
“It’s a complex model they’ve put into place,” said Diane Hirshberg, a professor of education policy at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Hirshberg said it’s good that the new accountability system takes into account multiple factors — it’s not just test scores and it’s not just graduation rates. But the rating system can be difficult to understand. She had concerns that people will sort schools by their index values and label those with a low number as a bad school and a school with a high number as a good school.
“This system is trying to get away from that, but how it looks externally versus how people who crafted this and understand it deeply are maybe two very different things,” she said. “Most parents don’t have the time to try to unpack what these index values mean."
It’s important to look at how schools can be improved instead of punishing them for not meeting expectations, and that’s what the new system does, said Dayna DeFeo, director of UAA’s Center for Alaska Education Policy Research. The system highlights performance gaps, which is important, DeFeo said.
“It’s a good start,” she said. “I think this is on the right track.”
Some of the big questions that remain: What kind of supports will the schools that need extra help get and will they work, Hirshberg and DeFeo said.