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Some Alaskans are concerned about Governor Palin's decision to monitor, but not actively participate in, an upcoming effort to create common national standards in reading & math. Critics believe we are missing an opportunity to see how our students compare with students in other states, or they think we are satisfied with AK's schools as they are. Neither assertion is true.

A state that adopts the initiative's results must agree that the common standards will compose at least 85% of the state's standards. That means each state's standards will differ from the other states' standards by as much as 15%. This difference ruins any state-by-state comparison of assessment results. The only true comparison would come from a uniform national assessment. For now, AK has 2 assessments, admittedly imperfect & incomplete, that compare some of our students nationally.

The impetus for common standards arose out of the feeling that some states' expectations for their students are too low. The fear is that in some states many nonproficient students are being declared proficient. But that is probably not because those states' standards are deficient. It is probably because their assessments are too easy. They may need a more rigorous definition of proficiency and a higher threshold for students' passing scores.
We have doubts about the pace of the standard-setting process & the value of states' input. The initiative's sponsors - the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers - expect to produce reading & math standards for 13 grade levels in just six months. That makes us think the sponsors already have consultants lined up who know what they want, & any one state - especially one with a small population - will have little influence on the final product.

AK already has detailed standards for student performance in reading, writing & math for each grade from 3 to 10. AK has performance standards for the earlier grades & 300 pages of early learning guidelines. We have spent considerable time & money developing assessments that measure the standards for grades 3 to 10. Hundreds of Alaskan educators were involved in creating those standards & assessments. We are not ready to give up what we have developed, but we are open to anything good that comes from the national initiative. We remain free to take from it whatever suits Alaskans in achieving higher standards. AK's decision to wait & see, & to use our own process to improve standards, will result in more input by our school districts than if we had signed on to the national initiative at the start with the intention of accepting all of the results.

We do want AK to be competitive & have world-class standards. We do have high expectations for our schools, educators and students. We understand the need to set the bar high. This past winter, several hundred Alaskans from all walks of life convened to create an ambitious plan for AK's K-12 public education system. The plan includes a comprehensive list of the attributes we would like our high school graduates to have as a result of their public schooling. Alaskans said they want much more than good test scores, so in that sense we have set a very high bar. The plan includes numerous actions we need to take to achieve our goals. It is a full plate. Accountability begins with awareness. The AK Department of Education & Early Development annually publishes clear information about student achievement in a report card to the public. Each year we report the schoolwide and districtwide results of the No Child Left Behind accountability system, as well.

The solutions to low achievement lie in the interaction of well-prepared teachers and ready-to-learn students in the classroom, and in the community's role in preparing students to learn. The state and school districts are taking steps to improve instruction. We are hiring a rural education director who will work with communities. We are launching publicly funded preschools. We have an AK Education Plan to shape our priorities. Standards are a road map. We know where we need to go. Now it is time to go on the journey toward higher student achievement, not to stop and create another map.

Editorial by Larry Ledoux (Commissioner of the AK Dept of Edu & Early Development)
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