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32% of Alaska students test proficient in English and math, but districts wait for another year of data

Riley Board

Just over 30% of students across Alaska are considered proficient in reading and math, according to testing data just released by the state. But administrators say the 2023 data isn’t helpful for making instructional choices, because districts will need another year of testing data before they have a baseline.

On the English language arts and math tests, administered to students in grades three through nine, about 32% of students statewide are considered proficient in English, and about 33% are proficient in math.

AK STAR testing, as it’s known, rolled out in 2022. Last year’s results were similar, with state education officials pointing to significant learning loss during the pandemic to explain the low scores. This year the state lowered the bar for what’s considered proficient, citing nationally high standards.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s scores fall about 5% above the statewide average in both reading and math.

“So we scored about where we always do, and we’re above the state average,” said Assistant Superintendent Kari Dendurent. “But I think the biggest thing is you’ve got other people saying well that’s not good enough based on where Alaska sits, but then when you look at where the standards are the the rubrics are, according to what I’ve heard, people are saying we have the highest expectations and standards across the nation…We just need to continue focusing on what it is we’re doing, and that our students are continuing to make growth.”

Dendurent said the district hasn’t yet had a discussion about the scores. But she said they’re not that useful yet, because the AK STAR exam has been undergoing small tweaks and changes in its inaugural years.

She said the next set of scores is likely to come out in the fall. After that, districts will have two years of baseline data from an unchanged test that they can use to drive instructional choices.

“We’re hoping that with the results that we’re going to be receiving in the fall timeframe, that that’s gonna help us as we’re preparing,” she said. “But the biggest thing, when you’re looking at these types of assessments, is that it’s holding our schools accountable to make sure that they’re teaching the standards set forth by the State of Alaska.”

Dendurent said that data will be used to help the district align with its strategic plan, one goal of which is performance on standardized tests. But she cautioned that the test is just a snapshot of one day in a student’s life, and only a picture of certain students. In the Kenai District, that was about 85% of students in grades three through nine.

“It’s a snapshot, it helps us, but we’re really looking forward to our 2024 results with limited to no changes, and then we can use that as the baseline for growth to tie it in for our instructional planning for the upcoming years,” she said.

Because the Alaska Science Exam has been unchanged since 2019, Dendurent said, those scores are a better indicator of growth. That test is taken by fifth, eighth and 10th graders. Last year, science scores statewide show that about 38% of students were proficient in science, and this year that number is about 37%. In the Kenai district, science scores increased by about a percentage point between last year and this year.

Scores vary between types of schools within KPBSD; charter schools generally show higher proficiency in the data, as does the district’s homeschool program Connections, although only a small percentage of those students, about 13%, opted to take the test.

Dendurent said the AK STAR data will be helpful on a statewide level in helping districts address the needs of Title I schools, rural schools or other locations with unique needs.

“It’s one piece of data that’s gonna help us assist in determining which schools are needing assistance, whether it’s in English language arts or math or science,” she said. “So when they do those school report cards, it tells us where we’re sitting at and what we need to do to increase the equity at all of our schools around the state.”

The Alaska Department of Education did not respond to an interview request. In a press release, the department said it was pleased to see a slight increase in participation across all student groups, and looking forward to providing districts with baseline data next year.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Kari Dendurent's name.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.