Alaska Fools Everyone with New School Rating System

It seems like "everyone gets a trophy" under Alaska's new school rating system. Do Alaska's parents and children win when the rating system portrays such a rosy picture of our schools?

by Bob Griffin

The new Five-Star school rating system unveiled by the State of Alaska deceives parents into believing that the schools their children attend are doing much better than they really are. The new system, known officially as the Alaska School Performance Index (ASPI), was adopted under the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver as a replacement for accountability measures used under NCLB.

A stunning example of how the new evaluation system paints an excessively rosy picture for school performance is the Airport Heights Elementary School in East Anchorage. Under the new system, Airport Heights is rated a solid three stars out of five, with an ASPI score of 78 out of a possible 100. It’s just 7 points short of becoming a four star school and 13 points above a two-star rating. To the parent of an Airport Heights student, the school’s three-star rating sounds pretty good. Three stars brings up the image of a three star hotel or restaurant; not the very best in town, but probably not too bad. The details of Airport Heights test scores tell a much different story:

Airport Heights, Standard Based Assessment (SBA) 2013 test scores:

  • Reading:    44% of students BELOW proficient or FAR BELOW proficient
  • Writing:       48% of students BELOW proficient or FAR BELOW proficient
  • Math:            51% of students BELOW proficient or FAR BELOW proficient
  • Science:       92% of students BELOW proficient or FAR BELOW proficient

Even more disconcerting is the fact that Alaska’s SBA standards for “proficiency” are among the very lowest in the US. In 2011, the Alaska State SBA scores showed that 80% of Alaska 4th graders were “proficient” or above in reading. That same year, the US Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that only 25% of Alaska’s kids were actually proficient or above in 4th grade reading, with both upper-middle income and low income Alaska kids scoring dead last among the 50 states.

One needs to look at the various factors that make up the overall ASPI score for a school. Under the new Five-Star system, academic performance only accounts for 35% of the ASPI score of elementary schools and 20% of the ASPI score of high schools and middle schools. Various extraneous factors like attendance and five-year graduation rates are factored in as part of the new system. These additional factors water down what parents really deserve to know — are their children learning the basic skills needed to become successful adults?

In elementary schools, attendance determines 25% of a school’s score under the new system. If a school achieves a 93% attendance rate it is awarded 24 out of a possible 25 points for attendance. In reality, it’s rare that elementary schools don’t meet this 93% attendance benchmark. It was met by Airport Heights, accounting for 24 of their 78 points. So how does a 93% attendance rate work? If 70% of the students in a school miss two days of class during the year, then the other 30% of the students can miss nearly two MONTHS of class (37 days each) and the school will still meet the 93% attendance standard.

Polling data clearly show that parents understand that public schools have major performance problems. The data also show that those same parents think their local school is fine; all the low-performing schools are “somewhere else”. The new Alaska School Performance Index helps reinforce the public impression that “all is well” at the neighborhood school. When a school can approach a four star out of five star rating while half its students are not proficient in the most basic of skills, (despite incredibly low standards) the ASPI system lacks the slightest bit of credibility as a public accountability measure.

Alaska is not doing its children any favors with misleading, overoptimistic, and invalid measures of school performance. We can do better than that.