The PEAKS testing program has only been in place since 2017, making it far too new to isolate trends, according to Sitka district testing coordinator Sarah Ferrency. The Alaska Science Assessment, however, has been in place for grades 4, 8, and 10 since 2010.

Sitka students overall are performing better on standardized testing than the state average, but Alaska Natives are not doing as well as their non-Native peers.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey has more on the Sitka School District’s response to the so-called “achievement gap.”

Downloadable audio.

Co-assistant superintendent Sarah Ferrency is the district testing coordinator. She presented at length to the Sitka School Board at its regular November meeting on Monday (11-5-18).

Seeing the achievement gap widen was the low point of the evening.

“It is disheartening and we are concerned about this gap going up for sure,” said Ferrency. “There is no question about that.”

“A gut punch” is how Sitka School Board president Jenn McNichol referred to the widening gap between test scores between Caucasian and Alaska Native students, and other identified ethnic subpopulations. This graph is for Math scores; English Language Arts showed a similar gap. (Sitka School District image/Sarah Ferrency)

The gap is not limited to Alaska Native students. Ferrency said that other, smaller subpopulations were also tracking behind Caucasian students, including Asian and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics. But Ferrency said that the data was not necessarily reliable for those groups: They are so small that one or two students would disproportionately affect the average. (See PEAKS results for the Sitka School District here.)

Caucasians and Alaska Natives are by far the two largest student populations in the district.

Four years ago the district took steps to address the achievement gap with a program known as CRESEL, or Culturally Responsive Embedded Social Emotional Learning. A number of districts around the state received a federal Innovations Research grant to design programs to improve student engagement and achievement.

Ferrency argued that the district could be experiencing an “implementation dip” as CRESEL was gradually introduced into teacher training and programs.

She suggested that it was not realistic to expect change to be quick.

“The changes that we are implementing now have been shown to improve achievement for diverse groups,” Ferrency explained. “That’s why we feel strongly about staying the course and giving them a chance. I think one of the complaints teachers have in schools is that things change so much. We tried this new thing, and now we tried this other new thing. It’s hard to expect real systemic change to happen in a short period of time. You have to do the work.”

Closing the achievement gap has been a top school board priority in recent years. Board members were clearly unhappy to see it widen. Board president Jenn McNichol called it a “gut punch.” Eric Van Cise asked if the district should be looking into socioeconomic factors outside of school that might be at work in widening the gap. He was especially concerned that almost 40-percent of district students were from homes at or below the poverty line (or “economically disadvantaged,” in district terminology).

Dionne Brady-Howard, however, believed that educators were just beginning to understand that historic trauma is a factor in the adversarial relationship between Alaska Natives and western schools going back 150 years.

“Even though we’re not having those same phenomena in our classrooms now,” said Brady-Howard, “We have the effects of those phenomena from generations past, passed down. I think until we look at that we’re going to have people in our district who remain skeptical about why this is something we’re still talking about. Well, we’re not still talking about it; we’re just starting to talk about it with this trend of trauma-informed schools.”

In addition to her service on the Sitka School Board, Brady-Howard is a Social Studies teacher at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. She said that recent training on historical trauma “was one of the most useful subjects we’ve ever had in professional development.”