Test results point to achievement gaps among Sitka’s students

Sitka co-assistant superintendent Sarah Ferrency explains the methodology behind district testing. Rationalizing the dip in scores following the adoption of new standards in 2012 she said, “Let’s be realistic. Kids on average don’t change a lot year to year. The kids’ learning has stayed roughly the same, but the way the test measured it has changed.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Based on the latest test scores, Sitka’s school district is performing above the state average — but the numbers are not necessarily something to brag about. Instead, Sitka’s educators hope the new test results help them focus their efforts on under-performing populations in the schools.

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Depending on the subject area, Sitka’s rates of proficiency are “pretty low” according to assistant superintendent Sarah Ferrency — running from around 33 to over 60-percent.

In general, Sitka students are performing at far higher levels in Science (67-percent) than they are in Math (37-percent). In English Language Arts, just over half — about 55-percent — are proficient.

Ferrency told the Sitka School Board during a work session earlier this month that none of this was unexpected.

“The standards that this assessment is assessing were only adopted five years ago,” Ferrency said. “It took districts a couple of years to get their new instruction in place. In a lot of ways this new set of standards is more rigorous than the old standards, so it’s not super-surprising that our students may not be proficient yet, because they haven’t had a lifetime of instruction in these new, more rigorous standards.”

It has been a rocky road for testing in Alaska since the adoption of new standards in 2012 — many of which were aligned with a national effort to improve curriculum called “Common Core.” Sitka students fared pretty well under the old testing regime — called the Standards Based Assessment, or SBA. Following the adoption of the new standards came the new test, the Alaska Measures of Progress — or AMP — which was eventually cancelled after an internet connection was severed during the middle of testing in the spring of 2016, causing catastrophic delays.

The new, new test is called PEAKS, or the Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools.

Both Sitka’s AMP results — and now its PEAKS results — are far lower than the SBA. Nevertheless, Ferrency said that Sitka’s kids are not going downhill.

“Let’s be realistic. Kids on average don’t change a lot year to year,” Ferrency said. “The kids’ learning has stayed roughly the same, but the way the test measured it has changed.”

School board member Dionne Brady-Howard argued that education advocates should carry a clear message to the Alaska legislature next January.

“That our test data is changing not because they’re not getting enough for their money spent, but because nobody’s been able to land on a consistent set of standards or testing that has spanned these students’ careers, to consistently figure out where they are,” Brady-Howard said.

But even though the standardized test results don’t fully address the quality of education in the district, Ferrency said they had value — primarily in identifying troubled population groups in schools.

According to Ferrency, the biggest at-risk group in Sitka’s schools is not who you might think it is.

“About 35-40 percent of Sitka’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and that number’s been going up in recent years,” Ferrency said. “I think it’s of note that economically-disadvantaged students are actually our largest subgroup, of all the groups that we look at.”

The other large subgroup performing below its peers has been of concern for years: Alaska Natives. Ferrency explained that the best way to improve overall district performance was to put energy into economically-disadvantaged students and Alaska Natives.

“These two are the areas we want to focus on. I don’t want to call it low-hanging fruit, because it’s not easy,” Ferrency said. “But these are the areas where we’ll have the most impact. It’s where the highest numbers of students are affected, and where the achievement gaps are largest.”

PEAKS, Ferrency pointed out, is designed to test only whether students meet or exceed a certain standard. It doesn’t point out shortcomings in knowledge or content. For that, it turns out, you need more than data. You need teachers.