PEAKS Performance 2019: Victories for Alaska Charter Schools

The Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools (PEAKS) exam measures the performance of students and schools in both mathematics and English language arts (ELA). R­­­­outinely, Alaska’s schools woefully underperform on state and national standardized tests – with the 2018/2019 school year being no exception. The 2019 PEAKS exam saw a decrease in the percentage of students proficient statewide in both subjects since the previous school year. Though typically at this time of year, new PEAKS results would be available, abrupt COVID-related shutdowns of schools canceled administration of the 2020 PEAKS exam, which means new results will not be available until fall 2021.

Closer analysis of the 2019 PEAKS exam, however, reveals valuable opportunities for parents and students. Comparing the results from charter schools to their traditional public-school counterparts, reveals that charters performed much better on the 2019 PEAKS exam as measured by the percentage of students proficient in both subjects, across all grades. In fact, charter schools outperformed traditional public schools in both subjects, in every grade.

Charter schools are independently operated public schools that are exempt from certain operations and management regulations but otherwise adhere to state regulations. The broad category of “public schools” includes charter schools, in addition to ABC schools, correspondence schools, and some home schools. ABC schools are magnet schools that offer theme-based curricula to attract students with special interests. Correspondence schools are schools that offer their courses through distance learning, and according to Alaska’s regulations, require monitoring by a certified teacher, follow all state and district curriculum, and participate in standardized tests. For the purpose of this analysis, the term “charter schools” refers to all charter schools as well as ABC schools.


The PEAKS Exam: Format, Methodology

The PEAKS assessment contains two sections, English language arts (ELA) and mathematics, which all students third grade through ninth grade are required to take. The PEAKS exam was administered with success for the first time in 2017, overhauling previous standardized tests that the state believed no longer conformed to rigorous standards. Results are available from the 2017, 2018, and 2019 administration of the exam.

The measure that the State of Alaska publicly reports for the PEAKS results is percent proficiency, which means the percentage of students in a school that are meeting or exceeding achievement level descriptors (ALDs) for each subject. To obtain this figure, the number of students testing proficient is divided by the number of students tested, giving a percent proficiency for the school. Figure 1 shows a map of school-by-school proficiency across Alaska.

Figure 1

Source: “PEAKS Data Map,” Alaska Policy Forum, 2019.

The PEAKS assessment test questions are licensed from a third-party agency, the Data Recognition Corporation. The test questions have been found during an alignment study to correspond strongly to Alaska’s educational standards, the ALDs.

Some schools are required to report their percent proficiency as a range due to privacy concerns. If the achievement level (“advanced/proficient” or “below/far below proficient”) contains between zero and two students, “the number of students will be eliminated [from the data] and the percentage of students at each achievement level will be reported as a range.” For schools with fewer than five students tested in total, no results will be reported.


Statewide Results and Analysis

The results from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development indicate that 39.20 percent of students tested were either advanced or proficient in ELA, and 35.72 percent were advanced or proficient in mathematics across all grades and all school types. Broadly, the proficient category includes students scoring either in the proficient or advanced range, and the not proficient category includes students scoring below proficient and far below proficient.

Figure 2, below, plots the percentage of students proficient in ELA and math across the state in both subjects for 2017, 2018, and 2019, the only years for which data is available. This is for all public schools, including charter schools, correspondence schools, and other alternative education. As evident in the graph, 2018 saw a slight increase in proficiency in both subjects (about 4 percent each), but in 2019, these gains decreased by 3 percent in ELA and 1 percent in mathematics.

Figure 2

Source: 2019 PEAKS Assessment Results, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

The Alaskan public charter school system provides an important service for an estimated 7,000 students around the state. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Alaska had 29 public charter schools during the 2017/2018 school year. These 29 public charter schools, with an additional three ABC schools included, have an average percent proficiency in ELA of 54.59 percent and in mathematics of 48.31 percent – much higher than the statewide average for all schools.

The public schools in Alaska, with charter schools filtered out but correspondence and home schools included, have an average proficiency in ELA of 38.18 percent (1.02 percent lower than the overall average) and in mathematics of 35.09 percent (0.63 percent lower than the overall average). Although these differences are small, it is important statistically to recognize that when charter schools are removed from the average, the percent proficiency for public schools decreases even further.

The charts below show the average charter school advantage in percentage of students proficient for each grade in both subjects. Even the smallest gap in average percent proficiency between charter schools only and all public schools (including charters and other alternative schooling) was 3.22 percent, for ninth graders in mathematics. However, it’s important to note the statistical reality that because there are so few charter schools serving ninth grade students and so many public high schools, PEAKS results from charter schools are more heavily skewed by outliers due to smaller sample sizes.

For every grade level, charter schools outperformed total public school proficiency levels in both subjects.

The largest gap between charter school and public school students’ proficiency was 16.17 percentage points in seventh grade mathematics. Overall, charter schools across all grades were 15.06 percentage points more proficient than public schools overall in ELA and were 12.21 percentage points more proficient in mathematics.

Figure 3

Source: 2019 PEAKS Assessment Results, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

Figure 4

Source: 2019 PEAKS Assessment Results, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

For a grade-level breakdown of percent proficiency across the state for all public schools, including charter, ABC schools, correspondence schools, and home schools, see figure 5. This graph reveals that sixth graders are most proficient in ELA – meaning more sixth graders are reading proficiently for their grade level than any other grade cohort – and fourth graders are most proficient in mathematics, meaning that fourth graders are meeting or exceeding their grade-level math standards more so than students in any other grade tested. The graph reveals that the least proficient students in mathematics are eighth graders (27.43 percent), and the least proficient students in ELA are ninth graders (34.12 percent).

Figure 5

Source: 2019 PEAKS Assessment Results, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

For a grade-level breakdown of percent proficiency for charter schools, see figure 6. This graph shows, as with all public schools, that sixth graders were the most proficient in ELA (52.43 percent), and fourth graders were the most proficient in mathematics (56.12 percent). This graph also reveals that ninth graders were the least proficient in mathematics (30.96 percent) and in ELA (40.84 percent proficient).

Figure 6

Source: 2019 PEAKS Assessment Results, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.


Conclusions and Remarks

Key findings:

  1. Charter schools consistently outperform their traditional public-school counterparts. Across all grades, in both subjects, charter schools have a higher average percent proficiency.
  2. Charter schools, on average, have 15 percentage points more students that are proficient in ELA than public schools, and about 12 percentage points more in mathematics.
  3. Percent proficiency usually drops in the highest grade levels tested for both charter and public schools; however, because few charter schools serve high-school age students, there is statistical bias present in the small sample sizes.

Given the consistent and measurable advantages Alaska’s charter schools demonstrate, it is a surprise and a shame that these schools are not treated more welcomingly by state law. A ranking by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools categorizes Alaska’s public charter school laws as some of the worst in the nation, citing that the law “provides little autonomy, insufficient accountability, and inequitable facilities funding.” The strengths? Alaska does not cap public charter school growth and includes an appeals process for applicants rejected by districts. For those Alaskan parents who wish to send their child to a charter school – and many might, considering the testing advantages described here – it is a travesty that state law acts so unfavorably toward charter schools.