Alaska considers US push to boost school standards

Groups introduce plan to bring students across the nation up to the same level of learning

Posted: Monday, March 29, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Should Alaska's kindergartners be expected to learn to count to 20 or 100?

Should fourth graders be expected to identify plot, settings and character? Or should they read at a level above, as well as know about words and phrases from Greek mythology?

Should teens be expected to read John Keats by the 11th grade?

As 48 other states are participating in a rewriting of their education standards, Alaska is taking a look at its own and wondering if it should get onboard and raise the bar for students. But while some educators say Alaska kids deserve to be held to the same standard as the rest of the country, others are saying we are different and the current, laxer standards are just fine.

Earlier this month, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers released the draft of sweeping new school standards that could lead to students across the country using the same math and English textbooks.

The idea is to replace the patchwork of state and local systems in an attempt to educate all American kids better. The federal government is watching the process.

In February, educators from across Alaska examined differences between the national draft and the state's required curriculum. Overall, they believe Alaska's standards should stay where they are. The State Board of Education was to get its first presentation on the differences Friday at its Juneau meeting.

"Alaska has unique variances that other states do not have," wrote one group that reviewed elementary school reading standards.

"The (national proposed standard) is rigorous but not necessarily reasonable for Alaska's population," another group wrote. "Our 'at-risk' population would not benefit by increased rigor."

Opponents say Alaska's kids and schools, especially those in the Bush, are different. The state's dropout rate is double the national average, and the state rates last in the number of ninth graders who will likely have a bachelor's degree in 10 years, according to the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education.


Among the things that the national standards would call for: middle-schoolers will be ready to read "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and letters from John Adams; 10th graders will be up to mastering John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."

The state standards don't mention specific reading material. Instead they say that middle schoolers should be able to identify foreshadowing in literature, and that by the 10th grade a student should be able to do things like identify syntax and fill out a Permanent Fund dividend application.

Unlike the national standards, Alaska has no state standards for how proficient 11th and 12th graders should be in reading and math, although to get a diploma they must pass an exit exam that they start taking in 10th grade.

Some think adopting the national standards is the right thing to do.

"If we do make the switch, we think parents would have a better grasp of student expectations, so conversations between schools and home may be more clear," wrote one of the few groups that reviewed the national standards and supported adopting them.


The Anchorage School Board supports drafting national standards. It says students and parents deserve to know how Anchorage schools compare to those around the United States.

"We are feeling very strongly that 50 different state standards is really not getting where we need to get as a country," said Anchorage Superintendent Carol Comeau.

Even though Anchorage's standards are higher than the state's when it comes to reading and math, it wants to know how its students measure up to those in other states. Students take just two national tests, in the fifth and seventh grades. In high school, tests like the SAT or ACT are not required and tend to be taken by only the college-bound. In the end, it's impossible to see how Anchorage's 50,000 public-school students are doing compared with students in, say, Seattle or New York.

What are they learning? At what pace? Educators don't know.

The State Board of Education will make the decision on whether to take on the more rigorous standards.

What the seven members will grapple with: Are the standards supposed to be minimum to allow the most kids to pass? Or are they meant to be rigorous and prepare kids for careers and four-year colleges? Is the state misleading kids by setting the bar too low? Or is it discouraging too many kids by setting the bar too high?


Les Morse, deputy education commissioner, said the state is watching to see what the rest of the country does. Not all 48 states that signed up to help draft the standards are necessarily going to adopt them, he said. Some educators in Massachusetts want to keep their own standards because they consider them higher, according to media reports.

Morse said the State Board of Ed wants to take a look at what states like Massachusetts require to see if there is anything Alaska can adopt, in part or in whole.

The state is also waiting to see if the Obama administration takes action on implementing national standards, Morse said.

"It's Alaskans who should decide what their standards should be," said Eric Fry, spokesman for the state Education Department.

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