Alaska Schools Post Disappointing National Test Scores

Alaska saw a significant drop in test scores during the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2017. The NAEP is an assessment conducted by US Department of Education every odd-numbered year, measuring student skills in several subjects over a variety of different school grades throughout all 50 states and the District of Columbia (DC). Most states test their students in Reading, Math, Civics, Geography, Music and Economics at 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. Alaska has chosen to participate in NAEP testing only at the very minimum level required by the federal government, measuring only for 4th and 8th Grade Reading and Math.

2017 Alaska NAEP Highlights

Definitions: Students from families that qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch (FRL) are considered Low Income. Upper/Middle Income students are from families who do not meet the FRL qualification. Differentiating students by FRL/Non-FRL categories helps to reduce comparison errors between states with dramatically different rates of poverty.

  • Alaska had the largest decline in overall test scores of any state between 2015 and 2017.
  • Alaska was dead last in EVERY 4th Grade Reading and Math category in 2017, when sorted by FRL status.
  • 4th Grade Reading – The average Alaska 4th grader tested lower than the average low income 4th grader in the US. Alaska was the only state to earn that distinction in 2017.
  • 4th Grade Reading, low income — Alaska students were 29 points (2.9 school years) behind Florida and Massachusetts students. This was the lowest NAEP test score from any state in this category since 2003. These students were also 10 points (one full school year) behind the same students in in New Mexico, who ranked 50th .
  • Alaska was also dead last (51st) in 8th Grade Reading for upper/middle income students. Alaska’s low income 8th graders were 50th in reading.
  • 8th Grade Math for upper/middle income students was the category with the highest 2017 Alaska test scores. In this category, Alaska students were 41st in the US — 14 points (1.4 school years) behind students in Minnesota and Massachusetts.

The Blame Game

Some blame our disappointing NAEP results on lack of funding. In actuality, Alaskan taxpayers have been extraordinarily generous in supporting K-12 education compared to every other state. According to the latest figures from the National Education Association (NEA), Alaska spends the equivalent of 6.2% of all personal income annually on K-12. If we were to somehow fund K-12 exclusively with an income tax, every Alaskan worker would thus need to contribute $3,100/year for every $50,000 they earned – just for K-12. That’s by far the highest level of support in the nation – 19% above the #2 state (Michigan) and 68% above the national average.

Others play a different blame game. They rationalize our poor results by pointing fingers. Parents blame teachers; teachers blame parents, etc. Teachers and parents are not where the problem lies either. Our teachers are just as dedicated as teachers in Massachusetts and our parents love their kids just as much as parents in Florida. The problem lies in a K-12 system that has shunned and ignored innovations that other states have used to produce better outcomes. Instead, the Alaska K-12 establishment has focused almost exclusively on acquiring more funding to create an ever more expensive version of the failing status quo.


Successful reform models in K-12 are not hard to find — and they don’t need to be expensive. The best example is Florida. Aggressive education reforms in the early 2000s in Florida that carried an intense focus on early childhood literacy allowed dramatic improvements in NAEP scores across the board. The most impressive Florida improvement was the rise from 28th in the US in low-income 4th Grade Reading in 2003 to #1 — just six years later. That top position for Florida has held steady for the last five NAEP cycles. Today, low income Hispanic kids in Florida test higher in 4th Grade Reading skills than the average Alaskan 4th Graders from all economic backgrounds. The most amazing part is that Florida only spends the equivalent of 2.8% of their personal income on K-12 — the second lowest in the nation. Similar improvements have been seen in Indiana, Oklahoma, Ohio, North Carolina and other states, by following Florida’s lead.

Alaska’s kids are just as bright as kids anywhere else. They’ve simply been hobbled by a system that has been very slow to innovate and which puts adult agendas ahead of our kids. We squander too many resources on buildings and creating bureaucracies and ignore what others have done to improve outcomes without adding extra expense. We can, and must, do better for our kids.


All data used in this report come from from NAEP and NEA:

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