FAIRBANKS — Nearly three-quarters of fourth-grade students in Alaska can’t read proficiently, according to a report released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy and human service reforms for children.
The foundation report is based on the most recent data and standards from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card. The 2013 NAEP results for fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading were released in November.
The NAEP assesses students in every state and many U.S. territories. Only four states had lower rates of reading proficiency for fourth-graders than Alaska, though California, West Virginia and Nevada also had 73 percent of students below proficient.
The numbers paint a much bleaker picture for low-income students in Alaska, of whom only 15 percent were declared proficient in fourth-grade reading last year, according to the NAEP results. On the other side, 40 percent of “higher-income” students were declared proficient.
Alaska’s fourth-grade reading levels for low-income students ranked lower than any other state, and only surpassed the District of Columbia, with 13 percent.
The NAEP results highlighted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation show a significant gap in the level of competency considered “proficient” by the United States Department of Education and by the state of Alaska.
All 50 states create their own student assessments and their own standards to judge academic achievement and progress. Alaska uses its own test, the Standards Based Assessment, and bases student performance on standards it implemented in 2005.
“The standard for proficiency may be different among states,” the NAEP states on its website. “In some states, for example, proficient may mean that a student demonstrates minimum competency. Other states may set the level for proficiency as the standard for promotion to the next grade, or as the grade-level standard. By comparison, the NAEP Proficient achievement level is defined as competency over challenging subject matter.”
The state’s previous standards show a fundamental difference in the meaning of the word “proficient” between the state and the nation as a whole.
The NAEP breaks student scores down into four categories: above proficient, proficient, basic, and below basic. The former Alaska standards broke scores down into four categories as well, with slightly different names, but the categories in the two tests have vastly different meanings.
In 2013, the state’s report card to the public stated 42 percent of Alaskan fourth-graders were proficient in reading and 32 percent were above proficient. The NAEP, however, stated that, not only were 42 percent of Alaskan fourth-grade students not proficient, they were “below basic,” the lowest achievement level.
The NAEP reported student performance as nearly the mirror opposite of the Alaska standards. In addition to the 42 percent deemed below basic, it rated another 30 percent as basic. The Alaska standards only deemed about one-quarter of students below proficient, while the NAEP deemed only about one-quarter of students as proficient.
Erik McCormick, director of assessment, accountability and information management for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, said the two tests are hard to compare because they attempt to gauge different things.
While the NAEP measures proficiency as the ability to understand challenging content, the Alaskan SBA is meant to determine student mastery of grade-level expectations.
“Proficient means they’ve met the expectation of that grade,” McCormick said.
McCormick said the NAEP maintains standards that are much higher than Alaska’s, which was part of the reason the state chose to replace its standards with more rigorous ones.
“It was becoming clear that our students needed, in order to compete not only nationally but internationally ... more rigorous standards,” McCormick said.
In 2012, the state Board of Education voted to replace the state’s standards with new, more rigorous standards. Those standards will not be reflected on the state report card until 2015, however, since the state gave districts time to transition.
McCormick said the new Alaska English Language Arts and Mathematics standards will be much more closely aligned to the rigor of the NAEP standards.