Embrace the AMP: Setting high expectations for our children and our future

June Sobocinski is Vice President, Education Impact at United Way of Anchorage and is a former private and public school educator.

June Sobocinski is Vice President, Education Impact at United Way of Anchorage and is a former private and public school educator.

Anchorage just got its first look at how students fared on Alaska’s new standardized testing, Alaska Measures of Progress (AMP), and the results were simultaneously disturbing, and long overdue.

AMP was used for the first time last school year.  It’s different from the previous assessment in two key ways.  First, it’s more challenging because it is designed to better measure higher order thinking - students analyze, solve problems with multiple steps, use evidence to support conclusions, and revise and edit texts.  Second, it measures a higher bar on math and English academic standards.

Suddenly, the results look vastly different.  Here’s one example. In 2014, 70% of Anchorage 8th graders were proficient in math; in 2015, 27.7% of Anchorage 8th graders “met the standard” on the new assessment.  That’s a sea change in perception.  And to be clear, it is a matter of perception, because the students did not substantively change.  The scores actually did not drop.  Rather, the standards and the assessment changed. 

Despite how jarring the change, this recalibration is necessary to ready our students to enter the workforce and higher education.  We owe them these things: high standards, an accurate measure of where they stand in relation to other students in the nation and the world, and all the support we can muster, in and out of schools, to help them succeed. 

Our standards have been too low, and we have not competently provided an accurate comparative gauge to Alaska students.  It’s a real disservice to our kids, and a lack of accountability on our part, to overestimate their academic competence.  Now, students, parents and educators will have an early and more accurate gauge of how students are really doing.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is arguably the best national common yardstick, showed that in 2015 32% of U.S. 8th grade students were proficient or better in math.  Clearly, with AMP, Alaska’s standards and scores are finally in sync.

We have before us a tremendous opportunity, if we dare to seize it.  Knowing early and accurately how our students are doing in English and math provides a formidable tool to greatly improve education results in Alaska.  The situation here demands that we seize this opportunity.  Half of University of Alaska freshmen have to take remedial English and/or math.  Half the future jobs in Alaska require postsecondary coursework but less than one-third of University of Alaska students complete a degree within 6 years.  Anchorage employers feel that a majority of entry level applicants lack basic employability skills.  We must address these things.

But how? First, let’s not reject the improved standards and the new assessment.  The rumbling is already here.  Some educators have questioned the test’s usefulness.  Some legislators have questioned the cost and accountability. Students whose first language is not English have a more difficult time with this test.  No, of course the assessment is not perfect (is anything?), but good work has gone into this.  We should embrace it, improve it with helpful feedback, support our schools and educators, and most importantly, support our students to be better able to succeed in the world.  Let’s demonstrate to our youth that as adults we can embrace high expectations, set goals, work together, align our effort, and strive to improve.

Second, let’s remember that the responsibility for preparing our children to succeed in the world is everyone’s job, not just the job of educators.  In Anchorage, the 90% by 2020 Partnership is discovering ways to align volunteer support and community services to students so that their attendance and academic ability improve.  It’s now more important than ever for community organizations, businesses and volunteers to step up alongside families and school partners to meet children’s needs and help them learn.  The sooner we move beyond arguing the merits of the test to working as an aligned community to support student well-being and learning, the better prepared our kids will be.

Higher education standards and clearer data on student performance provide an incredible opportunity if we have the courage to act on it constructively.  The news may hurt, but it’s good medicine if we use it well.