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By NICK BOWMAN
Daily News Staff Writer
School officials and multiple professors within the University of Alaska are writing off the conclusions of a university study that calls into question the performance of Alaska public schools, citing problems with how the study was performed.
On Feb. 7, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, in a joint announcement with the University of Alaska and the Alaska Department of Education, rolled out a report arguing that almost two-thirds of Alaska public school graduates entering the university system have to take remedial coursework. Now, several experts are saying there’s more to the situation in Alaska that casts serious doubt on those results.
The study was performed by ANSEP founder and Anchorage campus engineering professor Herb Schroeder, who earlier this month told the Daily News that the results of his year-long dive into transcripts and university performance of Alaska students warranted a realignment of public school teaching to better prepare students for college.
“We're working to fix that, and the other problem is there's no course-level quality control in K-12,” Schroeder said on Feb. 7. “... There's no consistency among what's taught in the different schools around the state in classes. When kids end up in classes, and they come out, nobody is measuring to see what the kids learned.”
Meanwhile, Department of Education Commissioner Michael Johnson said his department didn’t collaborate on the research.
“We didn't have anything to do with the conduct of the study,” Johnson said. “The department wasn't involved at all.”
The commissioner said that while his department wants to work together with the university system, it hasn’t taken a position on the ANSEP document, noting that the state’s review of K-12 education and the university started years earlier.
Two other university professors, both in Anchorage, pointed to problems within Schroeder’s research.
Tara Smith is a University of Alaska Anchorage professor of English as a second language who said she has taught developmental English for years within the university.
She said the ANSEP research inflates the number of students taking remedial education within the university by including 100-level courses, which award credit and count toward graduation, in the study. Remedial courses, also called developmental courses, don’t award college credit.
Schroeder’s research includes intermediate algebra, a 105-level course, and all courses below English 111, according to the two-page report on his transcript study. Smith said that 100-level English is where most students entering the university end up in their first year.
“It grossly inflates the number of students who need what they're calling developmental education,” she said.
Smith also chaired a developmental education task force commissioned by the University of Alaska Board of Regents. The commission published its report March 2016.
“Our main recommendation was to not include college-level coursework in studies of developmental coursework across the system,” Smith said. “That mistake had been made for years by other departments.”
She said she was “disappointed” in the study, which “disparaged high school teachers and the work of high school students” in Alaska.
Smith also said she raised her concerns with University President James Johnsen before the study was published and has voiced the same complaints again.
“I would hope that they would correct the public record,” she said.
Diane Hirshberg, UAA’s director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research, said the study out of ANSEP is on the right track but has several key omissions.
“The questions raised are absolutely the right questions to be asking: Are we making sure that every student who graduates from high school is prepared to do what they want? To make the choices they want, whether it's going into the workforce or going for more education?” Hirshberg said on Tuesday.
The study includes the transcripts of 15,016 students from 2006 to 2016, but Hirshberg said the study includes only a subset of Alaska public school students.
Schroeder’s work included students who enrolled in the university system within one year of graduating from high school, and the study includes an average of 1,500 students each year for 10 years. In 2015 alone, more than 7,000 students graduated from Alaska high schools, according to the Department of Education, meaning some 80 percent of high school graduates aren’t accounted for in the study.
To be included, schools had to have at least 10 students from a graduating class enrolling in the university system in fall 2015, according to the ANSEP report. Ketchikan High School — which the report marks as having among the highest rate of college-bound students requiring remedial courses — graduated 130 students in 2015, the vast majority of whom didn’t enter the in-state system.
“I want to see a much more nuanced and deep and thorough study — asking the same questions, but doing it in a more complete way,” Hirshberg said, noting her office has been aiming to perform that very research.
Criticism of Alaska’s school system and the Ketchikan School District is nothing new, and Schroeder said on Feb. 7 that he hoped his study would spur interest to “build the best education system in the country” in Alaska by improving both systems.
“It costs $100,000 to come to the university here, and if you look at our time to degree completion, in a lot of cases it's more than six years, seven years,” Schroeder said. “Everyone wants to blame the university. Well, there's a lot of blame to go around. And I don't want to fight with anybody — I just want to fix the problem.”
Both Hirshberg and Smith, and local officials, say the study is mostly unhelpful, shifting blame for student performance at the open-enrollment university onto public schools.
Debates about the quality of Alaska’s state-funded schools have simmered for as long as there have been public schools, and initiatives have been in place to improve both K-12 education and the university for years — specifically with the Alaska Postsecondary Access and Completion Network and its “65 by 2025” program, which aims to have 65 percent of Alaska adults complete postsecondary education by 2025.
In Ketchikan, locals regularly go back-and-forth on the spending per pupil of the Ketchikan School District and how the benefits of those dollars stack up in the state and nation. There are arguments about the district’s graduation rates, ACT scores and other measures of progress. Schools Superintendent Robert Boyle acknowledges the district has been working for years to improve its students’ math scores.
But the professors from the university are worried that this latest research will make working with public schools more difficult. Based on the response from students, teachers and Boyle himself, they’re not far off.
Piper Cooper, a junior at Kayhi enrolled in advanced placement classes, called the study “completely bogus” and said she hoped to continue her education in the Lower 48.
AP calculus professor Jennifer Karlik said most of Kayhi’s advanced students will take Cooper’s route.
“I know darn well they’re prepared,” she said.
On Friday, Boyle blasted the university system.
“For somebody to say that our teachers are somehow inflating grades and bilking off millions of dollars is offensive,” Boyle said, “and since it comes from what I consider a not-very-good university, an open-door, non-competitive university, then we feel the best thing to do is to just disregard it.”