Alaska has its own unique way of grading its schools and according to the Alaska School Performance Index, the schools in state are improving as a whole. However, the report card given to the state from the US Chamber of Commerce is less than encouraging.
For the ASPI, schools are ranked by test scores, improvement on tests, attendance, standardized tests and graduation rates. The schools then receive a star rating, one being the lowest and five being the highest. In the 2012-2013 school year, 52 schools received a top five-star rating. In the 2013-2014 school year, that number rose to 75 schools.
Even with those encouraging numbers, the US Chamber of Commerce gave Alaska a failing grade for academic achievement. The grades break down like this:
Fiscal responsibility: D
International competitiveness: D
Data quality: B
Parental options: D
21st century teaching force: D
Postsecondary and workforce readiness: F
Truth in advertising: D+
Return on investment: F
Vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s education policy center Cheryl Oldham says those grades may seem bleak, but Alaska has been improving-- just not as fast as other states. She says the Commerce Foundation first released this report card in 2007.
“Essentially the same report card, looking at the K-12 educational effectiveness across the country. At that time sat with our research team and developed what we thought were important indicators in each state. The top two being academic achievement and academic achievement for low income and minority students.”
One of the F’s the state of Alaska received was in return in investment. Oldham says student achievement in Alaska is low compared to spending.
“Basically we looked at how much a state spends per student and then we look at their performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the NAEP, and then we did a calculation based on that. So for example, if you spend a lot of money per student yet your students are not scoring very well on the NAEP, your score is going to be very low. So for example, Alaska spends over $13,000 per pupil, and these numbers are adjusted for cost of living.”
Commissioner for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development Mike Hanley says although the ASPI is very different from the rating system the Chamber of Commerce uses, the data is still important. He says he agrees with both of them.
“I think we would do ourselves a disservice if we looked for ways to discount what the Chamber came up with. If we found ways or found reasons why our students can’t or aren’t performing I think it would be a disservice to our kids and a disservice to us.”
Hanley says the grades are backed up-- an F in postsecondary and workforce readiness is reflected in the university system in Alaska.
“Look at what we’ve been hearing from our universities, our employers and from our military for the past several years. The university says 52 percent of our kids need some remediation, at least one class of remediation before they can take a credit bearing class. Employers are saying not enough of our kids have what they need and we’re going to have to outside to get our new employees.”
However, Hanley does take issue with a couple points on the Chamber of Commerce’s report. He says he doesn’t know why advance placement classes are in the postsecondary and workforce readiness category when they are not required. The other issue he has with the report is Alaska’s low score on the number of 19 year olds in college. He says although Alaska does have a low college attendance rate, the Chamber’s report doesn’t reflect the amount of 19 year olds that enter the workforce instead of college.
Hanley says this report is not the major reason for the changes in the Alaska Department of Education. But it’s definitely an influence.
“The state and our school districts have been doing a ton since then. The biggest deal is to change the expectations that we have for our kids and that’s through a new set of academic standards that we put in place in 2012. We have changed the teacher evaluation system to include student learning because when you define a high quality teacher you always define it by how much their students are learning and I think it’s appropriate that you connect those two.”
Both Oldham and Hanley are confident that Alaska can raise its grade in the Chamber’s report by raising expectations and increasing opportunities.