Most Alaska students are behind in math, science and language arts, latest statewide assessments show

Apr. 18—The majority of Alaska students scored below grade level proficiency in statewide math, science and language arts assessments taken last spring — even after the state lowered the standard for what is considered proficient.

The latest results of the Alaska System of Academic Readiness, known as AK STAR, were released Wednesday by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

The scores showed slight improvements in student achievement from the previous year, though an administrator cautioned that the latest results did not allow for an apples-to-apples comparison to the earlier results because the proficiency metrics had been lowered.

The spring 2023 results released Wednesday "are not comparable to the 2022 results," DEED assessment administrator Elizabeth Greninger wrote in an email. "This is due to the changes to the achievement levels (cut scores) for English language arts and mathematics assessments, as adopted by the State Board in January 2024."

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Both the Alaska Science Assessment and AK STAR were distributed to most Alaska public students, from elementary to high school. The AK STAR assessment was new last year.

Here's how students performed:

—68% of Alaska students tested were not proficient in English language arts.

—68% of students tested were not proficient in math.

—63% of students tested were not proficient in science.

—73% of third-graders were not proficient in English language arts, and 73% of ninth-graders were not proficient in math.

—Less than a fifth of correspondence students participated in the assessments.

—In Anchorage, 36% of students were proficient in English language arts and 37% were proficient in math.

An Anchorage School District spokesperson said the district declined to comment on the results. A DEED spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

In January, the Alaska Board of Education approved lowering the standards of what's considered proficient, citing the fact that Alaska had set the bar unusually high compared to other states.

The change involved an adjustment to cut scores, which are standardized test results that indicate whether the student has performed above or below grade level. Alaska's proficiency standards have long been among the highest in the nation, and are still in the top third even after the change, education commissioner Deena Bishop told the state board at the time.

The change drew some pushback from educators who said lowering the bar for student performance wasn't the answer to improving outcomes.

But despite the change, the latest scores in most categories closely mirrored the previous year.

In 2022, 70% of students were not proficient in English language arts; 77% were not proficient in math; and 62% were not proficient in science.

Last year, education advocates attributed the score drops in part to learning disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, which set many students behind. However, student performance on standardized tests in Alaska had been low before the pandemic: In 2018, half of the students who took statewide assessments didn't meet grade-level standards.

Alaska student performance on standardized tests has become a highly politicized topic in Alaska this legislative session as lawmakers have tried to pass a sweeping education reform bill after years of mostly flat education funding.

Some Republican lawmakers have cited lagging student performance as an indication that public schools should be reformed as a condition for receiving additional funding. Education advocates have said the scores are a result of underfunding.

As part of that debate, Gov. Mike Dunleavy touted a national study finding Alaska charter school students far outperformed their peers at other public schools in Alaska and nationwide, which the governor said was evidence that the state needed to expand charter school offerings. That study relied on a single standardized test and drew scrutiny from lawmakers and education advocates.

Meanwhile, some rural educators say standardized tests aren't the only or best measure of student performance, and that schools off the road system often struggle with poor internet connections that interrupt test-taking.

In an email, Anchorage School Board member Kelly Lessens cautioned against relying too heavily on the standardized test results as a measure of student achievement without considering additional context.

"We know that student achievement (proficiency) is highly correlated with poverty (economic status) in ASD and around Alaska," she wrote. "We also know that absenteeism rates were extremely high in Alaska last year and that (class sizes) have been growing."

Lessens said the Anchorage board would likely discuss the results in depth as a way to set reading goals for the district.

The change to the cut scores caused the results, usually released in the fall, to be delayed this year, the state education department said.