This fall, when the Kenai Peninsula School District analyzed student test scores by school, some fell short. It was obvious some students were lagging.
Below average scores might be expected from the young inmates at the Spring Creek Correctional Facility, or the students in alternative schools who have had difficulties with conventional schooling in the past. But why do so many bush schools score so low?
"This is a complex problem with no simple answer," Superintendent Donna Peterson said.
"We can always do better."
This year, changes in state law are drawing attention to the problem. According to legislation passed in 1998, the state will designate schools by performance starting in August 2002. They will be labeled "distinguished," "successful," "deficient" or "in crisis."
Setting the criteria for the labeling is proving controversial. So far, the process relies heavily on standardized test scores. Educators are calling for delays in implementing the designations and searching for alternatives.
"The school designator concept of forcing schools to come up with a plan is a very public way of drawing attention to the issue," Peterson said.
"We in (the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District) would like to believe that we are analyzing the data closely and asking the questions and coming up with the school improvement plans to address the issues. The idea should be that the local district has control -- we think we know where the problems are and are addressing them.
"I'm concerned that designations for schools, without tremendous understanding of the process, will be a further black eye for public education.
"And to what end?
"If we're out there trying to explain the many factors that lead to student success (which folks could take as being defensive), it means that time is diverted possibly from the mission of fixing the problem."
The district is looking hard at its numbers and the situation in the weakest schools, she said.
"If we truly believe that every child should reach his or her personal potential, we need to be looking at why any and all are or are not successful. ... Anytime we see something that doesn't work or fit the general pattern, we dig deeper in the data."
The district score reports echo those of the state as a whole.
When the state Department of Education and Early Development released statewide test results this past summer, they showed white students were twice as likely as Natives to show proficiency on mandated tests.
Education Commissioner Shirley Holloway saw the results as a call to action and a cause for soul searching.
"The analysis shows a deep divide in student achievement among ethnic groups. White students score higher than other ethnic groups, much higher on average than Native Alaska students. Why is this so? What steps do we need to take to shrink this divide? It's time for debate. It's time to find out. It's time for action," Holloway said in a prepared statement.
Privately, peninsula educators say the designations may flunk some schools within the district. The ones with the weakest scores tend to be the "across the water" village schools.
"It's going to make, I think, the rural-urban split even greater," said Wayne Young, the principal-teacher from Port Graham.
Although the white-Native score gap was only half as great on the Kenai Peninsula as it was statewide, it is still worrisome.
The reports divided scores into "proficient" and "not proficient" categories. When broken out by ethnic groups, about 20 percent fewer peninsula Native students were proficient than their white counterparts. Even more disturbingly, the gap widens as students move to higher grades.
The numbers: good,
bad -- or meaningless?
Often, the bush schools have so few students in any given grade that school scores lack statistical significance. For example, last year, Nanwalek graduated one senior; Susan B. English School in Seldovia had five.
When the district reports test scores, it combines the small schools into an aggregate number to protect the confidentiality of individual students. This past year, however, more scores were broken out.
They show striking differences.
High school juniors at the combined small schools scored among the lowest in the district on the California Achievement Test (CAT 5). The schools included Nan-walek, Tebughna in Tyonek and the Russian Old Believer villages of Nikolaevsk and Voznesenka. Those students scored near the 20th percentile, similar to the inmates in the new prison education program at Spring Creek.
In contrast, the average district student scored near the 60th percentile.
Seldovia's scores show a different picture. There students, with a few exceptions, tend to score at or above district averages. And the tiny town leads the pack when it comes to math.
Other tests showed similar patterns.
Take the Alaska High School Graduation Qualifying Exam as an example. At Seldovia, 10 out of 15 juniors and seniors who have taken the test have passed all three sections. But in Nanwalek, none of the eight juniors passed all three. Scores for this year's three seniors were not available.
Port Graham stops at 10th grade, and its scores are lumped in with the small schools average. Principal Young said three of his sophomores took the test last spring.
"Of the three, two of them passed a third of the test," he said. "How meaningful are your statistics when you only have three kids?"
hold students back
Numerous factors tweak the scores up or down, those involved with the schools said.
One impediment to education is attendance.
Nanwalek's principal-teacher, Maurice Glenn, said the remoteness of the village sometimes forces absences.
"If one of my kids needs to go to the doctor, they have to go to (the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage)."
An appointment easily becomes a several-day trip, especially if foul weather intervenes.
Another is facilities. The schools are aging.
Nanwalek, particularly, now faces overcrowding.
Emilie Swenning, the village chief and a mother of school children, said students are crammed in wall-to-wall in what she called "dungeon classrooms."
Another big factor lowering bush school scores is handicaps. Learning disabilities can skew the scores of a class downward.
Districtwide, one student in eight qualifies for special services. In Seldovia, one in nine does. But in both Port Graham and Nan-walek, the fraction is about one in six.
Port Graham's Young said students statewide vary from village to village, but some bush schools have to deal with fetal alcohol syndrome and substance abuse. These problems are not unique to the Bush, but tend to be larger there. He praised Native corporations for working to break dysfunctional cycles, but said the problems are stubborn.
"All the education in the world still hasn't changed some of those lifestyles," he said. "There are a lot of social issues."
But one of the most important factors of all, the educators said, is inadequate teaching staff.
The series will continue Tuesday with a look at the challenges bush teachers face.
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