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Alaska’s poor education test scores are a wake-up call. But they’re only one data point.

  • Author: Tim Parker
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 13, 2019
  • Published September 13, 2019

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With the Labor Day weekend behind us, all 500 of Alaska’s schools are finally back in session. Opportunities to learn are piling up faster than the yellow leaves falling off the birch trees. Teachers are getting to know everything they can about each student to personalize instruction and maximize learning.

In the midst of this, Alaska’s Department of Education & Early Development just announced the 2019 Performance Evaluation for Alaska Schools, or PEAKS, assessment results. The results are mixed, with some dips and some bright spots, but it’s clear that many Alaska kids are struggling.

We must not be satisfied with these results, and we must continue our efforts to work together within our schools and communities. The thoughtful question that we must ask ourselves is one that DEED Commissioner Michael Johnson has used over and over as part of Alaska’s Education Challenge: “How will we meet the educational challenges in Alaska?”

This is a complex but critical question that we must address to ensure we meet Alaska’s goal at the center of the challenge: “An excellent education for every student every day.” Alaska’s Education Challenge is a historic effort to unite Alaskans around shared commitments to improve public education. Thousands of Alaskans have been engaged in the process and educators, policy makers, tribal leaders and local school boards have leaned into this commitment.

Fortunately, in the darkness of unacceptable test scores, the consensus built around the positive trajectories of Alaska’s Education Challenge shine a light on the way forward.

  • Focus on reading and early reading to ensure students have the tools they need to succeed in school and in life.
  • Attract and retain effective education professionals and take concrete steps to reduce educator turnover. Peer-reviewed research demonstrates schools with low turnover improve outcomes for many more of their students. Many rural Alaska districts face annual educator turnover of more than 30%.
  • Improving the safety and well-being of students is fundamental to success in learning. One consistent variable in low test scores both in Alaska and across the country is poverty. Put simply, students who come from challenging backgrounds do not perform as well as their peers on standardized tests. Alaska continues to lead the country in some of the worst statistics, including the percentage of children living in poverty and suffering from trauma or adverse childhood experiences.
  • It was refreshing to see Alaska’s Director of Innovation and Education Excellence Tamara Van Wyhe quoted in the Anchorage Daily News cautioning against “drawing too many conclusions from the scores.” She said the scores provide only a snapshot of how students are doing, and they should not be the only measure of school success.

    Alaska is struggling to attract and retain educators, and with the proposal by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to cut more than $300 million last February, hundreds of our best educators have moved out of state, leaving unfilled positions. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District reported its highest-ever level of resignations last year, including the departure of the 2017 Teacher of the Year, James Harris.

    Putting the K-12 education budget on the chopping block doesn’t do anything to help retain educators. Pink slips push educators to look to the Lower 48. This problem is compounded by Alaska’s worst-in-the-nation retirement. All educators hired after 2006 have no access to a pension or Social Security.

    Educators know that there is much more to students than a single test score. We continually use dozens of different assessments to find out whether students are learning. Unfortunately, some politicians and pundits will use these test scores to score cheap political points and use a broad brush to paint our whole system of public schools as failing. Alaska’s parents and educators know that one test in April doesn’t define our students.

    If we want to maximize learning for every student, we must work together to build our public schools into the stable, healthy centers of every Alaska community. That’s a score that matters.

    Tim Parker is a teacher from Fairbanks who currently serves as the president of NEA-Alaska, the largest union of public school employees in the state.

    The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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