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Alaska school districts should know how their students stack up against those from other states and countries. How else can we know if they're getting a competitive education? National tests in core education subjects such as English, math and science are lacking. There's one: the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), but only a sampling of students take it, and only states and selected urban districts - none in Alaska, not even Anchorage - get the results. There are a few other national tests, but they don't offer state-by-state results.
That's not good enough.
So you would think the state would get behind an effort to create national education standards, and nationwide tests. But Gov. Palin has decided the state will not sign on and work on the standards for now.
The state should reconsider. If there are national standards, we want them to work for Alaska's unique conditions.
State education officials have logical reasons for wanting to go slow: They are already engaged in a push to improve Alaska's educational system, and to some degree, diving into the national standards discussion would be a distraction.
"Education is too often plagued by new directions," says state education commissioner Larry LeDoux. "It takes away from the broad, hard-working things we need to do."
He points out that the state is working to improve the quality of teaching; it is launching for the first time state-funded pre-schools; it is hiring a director of rural education and focusing on providing more help to school districts whose students are performing at a low level.
The effort to get Alaska and other states to sign on to the national initiative was rushed, said LeDoux.
"They wanted people to sign up within two weeks. Then they added a couple more weeks. I said, we need to go through with our own process."
Nonetheless, 46 states joined the initiative, which is sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Anchorage superintendent Carol Comeau says she is disappointed that Gov. Sarah Palin and Commissioner LeDoux made the decision to not participate at this time without consulting superintendents or school board members around Alaska.
"I think monitoring an effort that is going on with 46 other states is a mistake," she said, meaning the state should jump in, not just monitor. The main reason: "We have no idea" how our students' performance compares with others.
While we understand the state's reluctance, any national standards have to take into account the divergent cultures and conditions in Alaska, especially in the Bush. We should not end up with instructional requirements and test questions that assume all children have the same experiences as a Midwestern farm kid or an East Coast urban student.
The Palin administration argues that by participating in developing the standards, the state will be bound to adopt them later. We disagree. The state will have a stronger case to ask for any necessary changes if it participates now, instead of sitting on the sidelines and complaining about the end product.
In the end, Alaska's students do need to measure up against students in other states and the world. The state is more likely to get useful tools for doing that if it joins the effort and makes sure the result takes Alaska's special needs into account.