Be Careful What You Ask for with K–12 Testing Changes

By Bob Griffin

On October 1st 2019, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board passed a resolution questioning the accuracy of Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools (better known as the PEAKS test).

In the resolution, the Board notes that under the previous test conducted between 2005 and 2014, known as the Standards Based Assessment or SBA, the state averaged 75-80 percent proficiency rates on most testing. Under the PEAKS assessment, which started in in 2015, the state average for student proficiency is generally in the 35-40 percent range.

In this resolution, the North Star Borough School Board is asking the State of Alaska to “ensure an accurate and authentic assessment of student learning.” Be careful of what you ask for.

During the Anchorage “Education Matters” Summit in 2011, it was revealed by Kati Haycock, CEO of the Education Trust, that Alaska’s SBA test had adopted the “second lowest test standards in the US.” As a result of that observation and others, the more rigorous PEAKS state testing standards emerged in 2015 to paint a more accurate picture of where Alaska kids stand academically.

According to the US Department of education’s 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP test), only 32 percent of Alaska’s 4th graders are at or above “proficient” in math and only 29 percent of our 8th graders. Those numbers are pretty consistent over time. In 2003, the Alaska NAEP proficiency rates for math were 31 percent and 28 percent, for 4th graders and 8th graders respectively.

In 2017 reading, Alaska’s NAEP Scores are a little worse. Our 4th graders achieved a 28 percent proficiency rate; unchanged since 2003. Alaska 8th graders showed a 26 percent reading proficiency rate in 2017 and 27 percent in 2003.

Overall, Alaska was dead last in in the US in 4th grade NAEP reading scores for low income kids (who qualify for free or reduced lunch) AND dead last for upper/middle-income kids. Alaska is one of only two states who has seen an actual scale score decline in NAEP 4th grade reading since 2003 for upper/middle-income students.

Is the PEAKS test too difficult? Apparently not for everyone. In 2019 Skagway School District had 86 percent of all kids testing at or above proficient in English language arts and 78 percent in math. For Anchorage and Fairbanks, the numbers were 42 and 39 percent respectively – slightly above the state average of 39 and 36 percent.

If the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board needs a “fairer” comparison of student outcomes they should look to the Miami-Dade Public Schools (MSPS). Miami-Dade is demographically very diverse with a 19 percent poverty rate – dramatically higher than the 10 percent poverty rate in Alaska. Over 66 percent of MDPS students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 60 percent live in a home that English is not the primary language spoken. Despite these obstacles, MDPS 4th graders scored about 1/2 of a school year ahead of upper/middle income kids in Alaska, in NAEP 4th grade reading.

Are the PEAKS test scores an accurate portrayal of student achievement in Alaska? Maybe not. The NAEP data indicates our PEAKS assessment may still be somewhat overly generous in the picture we’re painting.

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Bob Griffin is the Senior Education Research Fellow for the Alaska Policy Forum and a member of its Board of Directors. He’s a retired USAF fighter pilot and former Chair of the Budget Advisory Commission for the Municipality of Anchorage and the Anchorage School District and a current member of the Alaska State Board of Education and Early Childhood Development.