Statewide test scores paint a new picture of Alaska education

Students in Alaska's five largest school districts, including Anchorage, did better than the statewide average on the new standardized tests in English and math that they took for the first time last spring, according to scores released Monday by the state education department.

However, in some of the larger rural school districts, the percentage of students meeting standards for their grades remained in the single digits.

Across Alaska, the percentage of students scoring proficient -- or meeting standards -- on the state standardized test plummeted, including in Anchorage, when compared to the results from the previous standardized test. That result was expected, education officials said, because the new tests hold students to higher standards than the old.

"Don't go out and say, 'Man, our scores are dropping,' because they're not dropping," said state Education Commissioner Mike Hanley, who presented the scores at an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon Monday afternoon. "They're totally different. It's a totally different test. It's a totally different expectation. They can't be compared."

Statewide, only about 35 percent of the roughly 72,300 students who took the new computer-based test, called the Alaska Measures of Progress or AMP, met the state's new standards in English language arts, while 31 percent of students met the standards in math.

Under the old standards, the results painted a very different picture of Alaska education. In 2014, about three-quarters of students scored advanced or proficient in reading, writing and math on the old test.

Anchorage School Board President Kameron Perez-Verdia said Monday that he was concerned about the new test results, but said they provided a more accurate representation of Alaska's students than the previous results.

"I want our kids to be doing better and it's sort of a wake up call for us," he said.

What is the new standardized test?

The new standardized test, the Alaska Measures of Progress, assessed students in grades 3 through 10 on the new academic standards adopted by the state in 2012 after it heard complaints from the University of Alaska, employers and the military that recent graduates were not meeting academic expectations, Hanley said.

With the new standards came a new test. The state engaged in a five-year, $25 million contract with the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at the University of Kansas, which developed the computer-based Alaska Measures of Progress test.

The new standardized test replaced the Standards Based Assessment, or SBA -- a traditional paper-and-pencil exam implemented in 2005.

In preparation to take the new test, schools bought laptops, gathered headphones, upgraded bandwidth and set up new servers.

In March, the Anchorage School District reported that it spent nearly $1.1 million on 3,900 new laptop computers and about $34,400 to increase its bandwidth for the five-week testing window to ensure good Internet connections for students.

Thousands of students logged onto computers across the state to take the new standardized test. About 100 educators met over the summer to determine the cutoff scores.

Based on their performances, students were given scores of one, two, three or four. Level three and four meant they met standards, while one and two meant they "partially met standards," Hanley said. The state did away with "proficient" and "not proficient" characterizations, and with it the traditional pass-fail result.

"If you're not proficient it feels like you didn't get over this bar. You didn't make it," Hanley said. "This recognizes that students are operating at grade level and may have most of the standards under their belt, but may also have some gaps that they need to address."

The state Department of Education and Early Development initially said it would release the scores in mid-October. It delayed that release date because of multiple glitches in how the scores were reported, Hanley said, and eventually rolled them out Monday.

Alaska’s five biggest school districts have similar, above-average results

The department made the districtwide and schoolwide results available online Monday afternoon, but did not provide summary rankings.

Hanley said that the test scores present a snapshot in time to inform parents, students, teachers, policymakers and the state education department.

"Our goal is to inform a system, not show a comparison between all of our districts and show a level of some kind of competition," Hanley said. "Every school has its own challenges."

Students in Alaska's five largest school districts all scored above the statewide average in English language arts and math, the two subjects on the new standardized test. Still, less than half of their students met standards.

For instance, 42 percent of Alaska's fifth-graders met standards for English language arts, compared to 47 percent of Anchorage's fifth-graders. That was Anchorage School District's best score.

Its worst? Only about 23 percent of Anchorage's 10th-graders met standards on the math assessment. Statewide, about 20 percent of 10th-graders achieved that proficiency.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Ed Graff said the new test results serve as a baseline. Graff said he wants parents to know that the district remained steadfast in providing all students with access to challenging material.

"As students gain more experience in the standards, I'm confident their scores will rise," he said.

On the old assessment, under different standards, about 85 percent of Anchorage's fifth-graders scored proficient in reading in spring 2014, while nearly 83 percent scored proficient in writing. About 64 percent of 10th-graders scored proficient in math.

For Anchorage schools and across the state, scores dropped as grades increased. Hanley said that trajectory follows the size of the gap between the old and new standards.

In some of the larger rural school districts, the percentage of students meeting the new standards didn't reach 10 percent.

"I think back to the days when the high school exam first came out and nobody thought that rural Alaska would be able to make that bar, and we did," said Carlton Kuhns, assistant superintendent of instructional programs at the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Bethel.

Kuhns said the new standardized test measured students based on more rigorous standards, which the school district supports. However it also poses challenges for the school district where a majority of students speak English as a second language, he said.

"It's going to take some new ways of instruction on our part," he said. "So we anticipate growth."

The new standardized test features questions that are more language-involved, Kuhns said. Some students may also not be exposed to "city factors" which questions could reference, like curbs, he said.

"If a child has never seen concrete, they likely won't know what a curb is," he said. "It doesn't reflect at all on our quality of students or their intelligence."

Bill would repeal new test

Even before the districtwide and statewide results were made public Monday, opposition to the new Alaska Measures of Progress test had grown more vocal.

Rep. Jim Colver, R-Palmer, announced at a news conference last week that he had drafted a bill to repeal the new standardized test. He said Monday the test didn't create any value for teachers or students.

"It's just really expensive and time consuming and it's not producing any student learning," he said. "The bill would essentially direct the Department of Education and Early Development to stop administering this test and put in place a nationally normed test that we could compare our results with other students across the nation."

Superintendents from 19 rural school districts, including in Kake, Hoonah, Tanana and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, signed a letter dated Oct. 8 citing their own concerns with the new standardized test. The letter was addressed to the Alaska State Board of Education.

Among the superintendents' concerns were that the tests would give only limited information to help inform instruction and would not allow comparison of Alaska scores to the rest of the country. Alaska's school districts already use other tests to assess student achievement, the letter said.

The Alaska Superintendents Association said in a statement that the standardized assessment, a condition of Alaska's waiver from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, did not provide credible reports. The state must pause in its implementation of the test, the statement said.

"Alaska's students deserve a system of accountability that accurately informs both classroom instruction and public understanding of student achievement," it said.

The state education department said school districts will distribute student-level reports to parents later this month. To check out how your student's school district or specific school did go to

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.