State test shows room for student improvement

Oct 23, 2017


This past spring, students around Alaska took the state’s new standardized test, the Performance Evaluation of Alaska Schools, or PEAKS.

The test evaluated students from third to 10th grade on reading, writing and math. State- and districtwide results were released in early September, but the think tank Alaska Policy Forum released a visual map of those results Wednesday, showing individual schools’ results. Nearly half of students on the Kenai Peninsula were not proficient in English and nearly 40 percent underperformed in math.

The state updated its standards for evaluating schools and students in 2012. The Every Child Succeeds Act, which passed in 2015, requires states to provide such a test.

Students were first tested on Alaska’s new standards in 2015 with the Alaska Measures of Progress test, or AMP, but the assessment was scraped the following year after some technical issues.

However, 2015’s results gave educators a completely new picture of how Alaska’s students were doing. The previous test, known as the Standards-Based Assessment, showed that about 80 percent of students were proficient in English and math, but AMP cut that number in about half for most grades.

The state’s new test, PEAKS, is showing similar results.

“The assessments are measuring different things, but we see some similar trends,” said Deborah Riddle, the student learning division operations manager for the Alaska Department of Education.

Riddle explained that the standards are more rigorous than what students were evaluated on previously, but she acknowledges there is room for improvement.

“As educators, you always look to your data and see where you are and where you want to be. We recognize that with our new standards and how our students are performing, we have some work to do, and we’re moving forward with some initiatives to help with that,” Riddle said.

In the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, every grade performed better than state averages, but as a whole, 47 percent didn’t meet proficiency standards in English and 37 percent fell below the bar in math.

“Obviously we were hoping for better, but yet they weren’t out of line with what we expected based on the previous assessment of AMP,” said Tim Vlasak, director of assessments and curriculum for the school district.

Vlasak said that PEAKS’ results are also in line with how the district performs on national testing for fourth- and eighth-graders, although it can be hard to compare separate assessments.

According the Alaska Policy Forum’s map, little over half of the schools on the southern peninsula, from Ninilchik to Nanwalek, had at least half of their students underperform. Almost all of the schools around the Kenai-Soldotna area fell into the same category.

But Vlasak said PEAKS tests students in a new way. The assessment is computerized, while the former test was paper-based. PEAKS also allows for multiple answers to a question, which Vlasak said is new. The bar is also set a little higher than the former testing model, which considered students proficient if they met the minimum standards for their grade.

“The results from the SBA were really positive in the sense that typically we had about 80 percent of our kids proficient on reading, writing and math,” Vlasak said.

He notes that this was the first year the PEAKS test was given, and said it should be considered a baseline. He adds that standardized test results are not the only measurement of success.

“Do we use it as one piece of information about a student? Yes, it’s a data point, but in any decisions about a student’s learning or education or supports provided, we would use multiple data points, never just one,” Vlasak said.

He said that home life, attendance and other factors should be considered when evaluating an individual student, as well, but when it comes to this year’s testing results, both the state and the district say they will provide help to underperforming schools.