One in two Alaska students tests below proficient in performance evaluation

More than half of Alaska students fail to meet standard proficiency criteria in English and math, assessments by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development show. The comprehensive results of the 2018 Performance Evaluation for Schools, or PEAKS, were released on Sept. 5.

PEAKS is a statewide standardized assessment for students in grades 3 to 9. It tests their understanding of English language arts as well as their math skills at the end of each school year.

The assessment results show an improvement compared to the 2017 findings.

“This year’s PEAKS results show the kind of incremental sustainable growth that will change the trajectory of our system of public schools and the lives of individual students,” Alaska Education Commissioner Michael Johnson said. “Though the growth is marginal, it represents a collective commitment to improve the success of our students.”

About 78,600 students participated in the assessment tests. The PEAKS scale ranges from 400 to 600 and is divided into four levels of achievements: advanced, proficient, below proficient and far below proficient.

42 percent of all students scored in the proficient category in English compared to 39 percent in 2017. About 37 percent scored at a proficient level in math, representing a 3 percent improvement from last year.

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The EED is hoping for the positive trend to continue, Deborah Riddle, Alaska deputy director of Student Learning, explained.

“We have ways to go, but we went up, and that was good,” Riddle said.

The EED administered the PEAKS for the second time this year. The scores do not impact the students’ grades or their placement in certain classes. Riddle says that the high number of students scoring below the proficiency line is connected to the standards of the test,.

“The standards that we’ve adopted… were more rigorous, far more rigorous than standards that we’ve had in the past,” Riddle said. “So, [this year’s results] gives us a baseline from which to work from.”

The goal is to improve the test scores by aligning the curricula of Alaska schools and providing additional resources to students, she explained.

“The PEAKS results are a piece of information that schools and districts can use to make programming decisions, [telling us] where to go to improve the score of students,” Riddle said.

UAA professor for elementary education, Kevin Spink, sees some issues with standardized testing. He thinks that the improvement shown by the 2018 PEAKS is not necessarily indicative of an improvement in student skills.

“The improvement… was predictable. Whenever there’s a new type of test that’s implemented, there’s always a couple of years of getting used to it,” Spink said. “So, it may not be the students that are performing at a higher level; it may just be that they’re more familiar with it.”

Spink taught at public schools in Alaska for 25 years prior to his work at UAA. He emphasizes that the actual problem is not with the test itself; rather, the main issue is the way standardized tests are interpreted and used.

“A big issue with this test for teachers is that… we’re continually told to use the data to plan our instruction. Well, with these types of tests, the data is of very low quality in terms of diagnosing individual students and then planning instruction,” Spink said.

Aligning the curricula with the intention of getting better PEAKS results could result in lower quality education, Spink pointed out.

“There’s so much political pressure [on teachers] to raise the test scores,” he said. “If you’re going to spend more and more time trying to raise test scores, what happens is you spend less time with deeper level and thoughtful engagement.”

Spink is convinced that filling the curriculum with social studies, instruction in the sciences, arts and real-life math problems will help students be more successful in the long term.

More information on the test procedures and results can be found on education.alaska.gov.

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