Overall, the news was good for Alaska schools earlier this month.
Across the state, 292 of 495 schools met or exceeded test score and mandatory attendance marks required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Many barely missed.
In Anchorage, there was exultation. Sixty-six percent of the district's schools made the grade across the board of 31 Adequate Yearly Progress standards. That tops an impressive rising curve Anchorage has gone from 40 percent in 2003 to 58 percent in 2004 to the current 66 percent. In a district where 44 percent of the students are minorities and more than 90 languages spoken, that's an achievement.
The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act is to have 100 percent of America's students meeting math and language arts standards by 2014.
It's a goal Alaska Education and Early Development Commissioner Roger Sampson embraces but not blindly or without qualifications.
Realities in rural Alaska have prompted the state to ask the federal government for some flexibility in its "highly qualified teacher" requirements and in measuring student progress.
"We're not gettin' it," Mr. Sampson said.
One or two teachers in some Bush schools must teach a range of subjects and grade levels. Many can do it and do it well, but it's unrealistic to expect teachers to meet "highly qualified" standards in every subject area, especially given high turnover rates.
As for students, test scores, attendance and dropout rates, Mr. Sampson would have the feds "judge by substantial growth," even if the numbers don't meet every federal standard in the yearly progression to 2014.
Here's where Alaska's congressional delegation Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young should do some educating of their own with the federal Department of Education.
Here's where Mr. Sampson is right to remind parents, teachers and students to "look deeper" than just the numbers. Almost half the schools that "failed" to achieve adequate yearly progress did so in only one or two categories out of 31, and in small schools attendance or performance of one or two students can rock the percentages. Schools doing excellent work and progressing on almost all fronts can still score a federal F for the year. In those cases, the grade is a gross distortion.
But the commissioner also feels frustration over a few Alaska schools failing on a wide front and slow to respond to the law's demand for improvement plans. NCLB provides for state takeover of such schools after a certain point; Mr. Sampson doesn't anticipate any takeovers for this school year but doesn't rule them out after that.
Whether or not Mr. Sampson gains the federal flexibility he seeks, he promises Alaska schools will continue to be held accountable in the drive to leave no child behind. Education, as anyone who has taught, learned and lived knows, isn't solely a matter of numbers. And NCLB, noble in purpose, is rich in flaws. But NCLB is driving improvement in math and language, and those are fundamental for Alaska's students.
Let's keep the numbers in perspective, and our schools improving.
Anchorage Daily News,
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