Alaska’s fourth- and eighth-graders have again performed worse than the national average in reading and math tests administered by the federal government.
The results, released Tuesday, also show Alaska students performed slightly worse on standardized tests in 2019 than they did two years ago. National scores also dropped but not by as much as Alaska scores. The sole exception was in fourth-grade mathematics, where Alaska students doubled the one-point gain seen nationally.
Education experts cautioned that results are dependent upon a variety of factors outside the classroom as well as inside, and that it’s inappropriate to do comparisons between specific states with different standards and demographics.
“It’s not everything, but it should be a wake-up call for us, especially in reading,” said Deena Bishop, superintendent of the Anchorage School District.
Alaska has the lowest fourth-grade reading scores of any state or Washington, D.C. (only Puerto Rico is lower) and the second-lowest eighth-grade reading scores (tying New Mexico and ahead of D.C. and Puerto Rico). Math scores were comparatively better but still in the bottom quarter of states and territories.
District-level scores are not available for Alaska. A separate annual state-administered test measures district performance.
Among certain ethnic groups, there were some positive signs. Alaska Native fourth-graders’ reading performance improved between 2017 and 2019, as did the performance of black fourth-graders. (White students’ performance, though declining, remains significantly higher.) Eighth-grade reading scores declined across all ethnic groups.
The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, administers the national math and reading tests to a sampling of students in fourth and eighth grades every other year.
Alaska began using the test in 2003, when it became mandatory for all states. Each of the four tests was taken by about 2,200 Alaska students, and in about 250 schools overall, the state Department of Education and Early Development said.
Bishop and Alaska Department of Education Commissioner Michael Johnson each said that efforts are underway to improve reading scores. In Anchorage, the district has rolled out a new reading curriculum, starting with kindergarten and first-grade students. As those students age, changes will follow them like an advancing wave.
At the state level, the department of education has been awarded a $6.5 million federal grant to support a comprehensive literacy program. A committee of the Alaska Legislature is scheduled to vote to accept that grant Thursday.
Johnson said the coming legislative session will include discussion of new education techniques and structures, such as a state-tribal agreement announced by the governor at this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
“We have to do some things differently, and I think there’s a growing coalition of people willing to have that conversation and move that direction,” Johnson said.