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Equity for Alaska Natives: Can High-Stakes Testing Bridge the Chasm Between Ideals and Realities?
By Ken Jones and Paul Ongtooguk
(c)2002, Phi Delta Kappa International, Inc.

Ken Jones and Paul Ongtooguk, "Can High-Stakes Testing Bridge the Chasm Between Ideals and Realities?" Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 82, No. 7, March 2002, pp. 499-503, 550.

Like many other states, Alaska remains steadfast in planning to use test scores as the sole or primary indicator of student and school success. Because of historical and cultural issues, however, Mr. Jones and Mr. Ongtooguk do not believe that a test alone will solve the pressing educational problems of Alaska Natives.

Alaska, like other states, is a place where the chasm between educational ideals and current realities is wide and deep. Policy makers here stand on the brink of implementing high-stakes testing as a means of bridging that gap. A high school exit exam is in place and has now been given to 10th-graders three times, but the time line for using it as a graduation requirement has just been pushed back to 2004. There are also tests given in grades 3, 6, and 8, called "benchmark tests," that are intended to gauge how students are progressing toward the exit exam. A "school designator system" is being developed to use the test scores from the exit exam and benchmark tests as a means of sorting and classifying schools into one of four categories: distinguished, proficient, deficient, and "in crisis." This designator system will begin with the results from the spring 2002 testing. Rewards and consequences for schools have yet to be determined.

As Alaska follows other states in using testing as a means of improving schooling, the issue of equity for Alaska Natives looms large. For many years, Alaska Natives have been justly concerned about the quality of education delivered to their youngsters. Issues range from underfunding of schools in rural villages, to run-down facilities, to an ongoing history of transient teachers who often teach out of field and do not adapt well to a small rural school setting. Moreover, many Alaska Native parents have come to understand that the local instruction and grading systems have not served their children well, as the students leave their schools for college and are assigned to remedial classes. Faced with paying college tuition to obtain what amounts to a high school education, many of these youngsters soon drop out.

Such failures have economic implications that affect the self-sufficiency of Alaska Native societies as a whole. Alaska Native businesses, nonprofit organizations, governments, and communities employ about one out of five workers in Alaska. Currently, however, very few Alaska Natives are employed in technical fields such as engineering, graphics, computer hardware and software, and networking. Schools are not producing enough qualified Alaska Native graduates for the positions available. For many Alaska Natives, this is an unacceptable situation.

Thus many Alaska Natives favor a statewide test that might be a more accurate indicator of their children's learning than the grades that have proved to be so misleading. Many also hope that holding schools accountable for test results will lead to better college and job opportunities for their sons and daughters.

So far, the test results have been disturbing, however, showing a large achievement gap. The table below compares statewide percentages of Alaska Native and white students passing the spring 2001 high school exit exam, which consists of three tests.1

Reading Alaska Native 37 White 78

Writing Alaska Native 23 White 56

Mathematics Alaska Native 22 White 53

As the table shows, white students pass the exam at more than double the rate of Alaska Native students. In order to receive a high school diploma, students must pass all three tests. While student-level data have not yet been released for the latest round of testing, in previous test administrations there have been some rural districts, primarily Alaska Native, in which not a single student passed all three tests.

And so those interested in providing a better education for Alaska Natives face a dilemma. On the one hand, a state test appears to offer a means of counteracting a long history of low standards. On the other hand, the high-stakes use of that test appears likely to consign even more Alaska Native students to an unpromising future. The first reaction of many concerned people is that, if we just fix the test so that it is a fair and unbiased instrument, then the test can leverage better instruction, and the achievement gap will diminish.

As other states have found, however, testing alone is not apt to solve deep-seated problems, and when that testing is used as the sole means for determining graduation, it can, in fact, lead to even worse problems. The increased rates of dropouts, retentions, special education referrals, teaching to the test, and drill-and-practice pedagogy that come with such high-stakes testing have been well documented.

What is needed is a direct focus on the deep-set problems themselves. If an accountability system is to be equitable to all students, it must go beyond simply measuring outcomes and address the underlying barriers to achievement that exist in schools and classrooms. For Alaska Natives, this means understanding the historical and cultural contexts that have led to the current achievement gap.

Historical Context

Formal education of Alaska Natives began with the arrival of missionaries in the 19th century. From the very beginning, Russian as well as American clergymen understood their role to be not just the conversion of Alaska Natives but also their "civilizing." Early missionary schooling, based on the social Darwinist concept that native subsistence communities were less evolved than white society, worked on teaching natives in matters of manners, dress, hygiene, beliefs, and values. Literacy was important not just to read holy books, but also to take part in trade and work with the new arrivals -- indeed, to become more like them. The operative word was "assimilation."

Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary appointed as Alaska's first General Agent of Education in 1885, originated a system of schools for Alaska Natives. His approach was to establish racially segregated schools, to insist on the elimination of Alaska Native languages and their replacement with English, and to deliberately teach the students Christian "morals."2 Although segregated schools were outlawed in Alaska in 1929, a dual system of education remained firmly in place into the 1970s. BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) schools and "public schools" existed side by side.

Alaska Native students from villages were sent away to boarding schools -- high schools in which they would learn vocational skills. With one notable public school exception, Mt. Edgecumbe boarding school in Sitka, Alaska Native students were not taught the same content or to the same standards as white students.

Within the past 30 years, through a series of court cases, education for Alaska Natives has become more consistent with the education provided for whites. It has also become more decentralized, with schools through 12th grade provided in each rural village.3 However, the quality of education that Alaska Natives receive has still been subject to criticism, from Alaska Natives themselves as well as others. This criticism extends beyond actual day-to-day practices to a more general concern about protecting native cultures and lifestyles.

Alaska Native parents are often ambivalent about their commitment to the public schooling of their children because schools have not been committed to helping them raise their children within the fold of their own culture. The 80-year legacy of social Darwinism -- in which the goal of the school was to eliminate native cultures while attempting to prepare Alaska Natives for their "level" as laborers in the Last Frontier -- presents parents with a "devil's dilemma." They want their children to be able to succeed and prosper in the modern world, but giving up being an Alaska Native is too high a price. It is, in fact, an impossible price. At the end of the day, they are still Alaska Natives.

Can public schools provide educational opportunity to Alaska Native students without diluting or subtracting their nativeness? This is a key issue for an Alaskan accountability system. To the degree that an exit exam represents the dominant culture, cultural bias will skew the equation. In a huge land of Yup'iks, Cup'iks, Inupiaqs, Athabascans, Tlingits, Haida, Aleuts, and others, the notion that a high-stakes, one-size-fits-all test may help to preserve Alaska Native cultures seems unlikely. Any new system of school accountability must be judged within the historical context of an education system that has sought to undermine and destroy Alaska Native cultures.

Cultural Context

The learning barriers associated with public schooling for Alaska Natives are also connected to cultural differences. In both rural and urban areas, the great majority of teachers are white and from the mainstream society, and the curriculum is based primarily on the traditional Western canon and the English language, not the heritage and home languages of Alaska Native students.

Lisa Delpit has focused on some of the cultural differences involved in literacy education for Alaska Natives. She explains that Alaska Natives are often more attuned to personal interactions and community than are members of white societies. This has significant educational implications. For example, reading instruction in public schools is often a kind of solitary endeavor, which may be culturally ill suited to Alaska Natives. Delpit contrasts our notion of literacy with the kind of orality prevalent in Alaska Native culture:

"Literacy communicates a message solely through a text, through the word. Orality, by contrast, has available to it other vehicles for communication: not only is the message communicated through words (the text), but by factors such as the relationship of the individuals talking, where the interaction is taking place, what prior knowledge and/or understanding the participants bring to the communication encounter, the gestures used, the speaker's ability to adjust the message if the audience doesn't understand, intonation, facial expressions, and so forth -- the con (meaning with) in context."4

Building relationships and establishing meaningful contexts for literacy instruction may thus be seen as very important in teaching Alaska Native students. However, this dimension is often lacking. In rural villages, where the mostly white teachers and administrators live apart from the Alaska Native population and typically spend only two to three years in the village before leaving again, trusting relationships are difficult to establish and maintain. For the most part, teachers do not get close enough to the Alaska Native culture to understand it well or to use it as a meaningful context for instruction. In urban areas, the situation is often worse, with larger schools increasing the sense of depersonalization and decontextualized learning.

The curriculum used in both rural and urban schools, often defined by textbooks, is primarily focused on mainstream knowledge rather than local culture and experiences. This emphasis will undoubtedly be reinforced through the high-stakes state testing. While the state department of education does not release copies of the actual test, it has made sample items available on its website. The reading items include passages on international trade and chocolate; the writing items include references to skyscrapers, department stores, and Alice in Wonderland; the mathematics items, although largely devoid of context, include a spatial visualization question depicting a castle. Because a large-scale test cannot do a very good job of accommodating local cultural contexts, items inevitably show a bias toward mainstream society.

In statewide discussions about matters of curriculum, Alaska Natives have not been opposed to their students' becoming knowledgeable and proficient in the ways of white society. However, they also want their students to learn Alaska Native ways and to have a relevant curriculum that focuses on their customs and daily lives, especially in the villages. In other words, Alaska Natives want opportunities, but they do not want assimilation.

John Pingayaq, a Cup'ik teacher of 24 years in the village of Chevak, says: "The way I see it, the school should be the right arm of the community, but as it stands, it is separate. If we measure students' achievement only according to these tests, the tests should measure their cultural and language skills as well."5

The languages used by Alaska Natives in rural villages have evolved over many years into unique dialects, collectively referred to as Village English. This form of the language, while functional and alive, is very different from the type of academic English used in schools and on state tests. Lily Wong Fillmore, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, has researched Alaska Native languages since the 1970s. She reports that Village English, which parents teach their children, is an important part of the village culture, meeting all the needs for communication. It is culturally embedded, based on an economy of speech and pauses between phrases that are based on politeness. Moreover, she found that students were highly skilled in this language. She comments on recent interviews she conducted with Yup'ik students: "These kids were bright and observant with a fine command of the language variety spoken in their villages. The children have extraordinary breadth of vocabulary -- words to talk precisely about the animals, the fish, the vegetation. They didn't just tell you the berries. They told you what kind of berries."6

In order for rural Alaska Native students to do well on the exit exam, they must have opportunities to learn standard English in a way that also responds to their own cultures. In the national debate over bilingual education, one school of thought contends that students who learn their home language first, rather than being forced to abandon it, often do better when they are taught English as a second language. In Alaska, the Lower Kuskokwim School District has implemented a Yup'ik immersion program in the first three years of school. Not only have the Alaska Native parents and community been pleased, but test results on the benchmarks test have been relatively high. Unfortunately, this model is not the norm in educating Alaska Natives.


For Alaska Native students, the historical and cultural contexts described here constitute significant barriers to meeting the new state-mandated standards. As the exit exam was quickly put into place, little attention was given to improving classroom experiences for Alaska Natives. Money was not allocated for improving facilities or for providing resources and professional development to teachers and schools. Concerns about the standardization and narrowing of the curriculum around mainstream culture were not addressed. Little accommodation was made for those whose primary language is not standard English. Accountability was defined only as a matter of test scores, not as a system that insisted on the classroom-level provision of equitable opportunities to learn and the use of culturally responsive teaching practices.

As a result, classroom teachers are already seeing problems. One white high school teacher in an Alaska Native village made the following comments:

o On the narrowing of curriculum and instruction: "The biggest effect I see on classroom instruction is a trend toward more conservative classroom practices. The pressure to align everything with state standards and specific skills leads to more workbook-style instruction and fewer projects."

o On relationships with students: "A student told me that the test was just 'another way for white people to tell us we're stupid.' Some students view almost any assessment by white teachers as a put-down. More testing increases the frequency with which we insult these students, and high-stakes testing increases the anger they feel when they fail."

o On the likelihood of dropouts: "On their first day of high school, three of our students who were in the second class that was supposed to have to pass the exit exam asked, 'Why should we come to school when we can never graduate?' They did not believe that they would ever be able to pass the test. Instead of inspiring students to learn as much as they can, the test is inspiring some of them to give up."7

State authorities have recently made some efforts to adjust the testing system so as to minimize some of these negative effects. They are also beginning to provide support for schools. The state is reviewing the bias in the exam, reevaluating the performance levels required for proficiency, and directing funding toward a school improvement program. There is even discussion afoot about including the results of the exams on the diplomas of graduating students instead of withholding diplomas.

Other Possibilities

What the state of Alaska has not done is to reconsider its accountability system. Like many other states, it remains steadfast in planning to use test scores as the sole or primary indicator of student and school success. Because of the historical and cultural issues raised above, we do not believe that a test alone will solve the pressing problems of an increasing dropout rate for Alaska Natives, a mainstream curriculum bias that ignores local heritage, and poor teaching and assessment at the school and classroom levels. In fact, we are concerned that the high-stakes testing will exacerbate the current situation, in which many Alaska Native students do not have real access to colleges and jobs.

There are possibilities for assessing student learning and holding schools accountable that go beyond the use of a single high-stakes test. We agree with the proposal that, instead of withholding diplomas, the state should simply require that the scores be included on the diplomas. Beyond this, we recommend a new generation of accountability systems. The state should partner with local communities so that local student assessments are improved to reflect more accurately the educational achievement and preparation of students. School-level curriculum and teaching practices should also be reviewed to ensure equity, cultural responsiveness, and a sharp focus on rigorous and relevant academic standards. Measures of success must be multifaceted and include local performance assessments and informed teacher judgments. We highly recommend the development of a school-quality review system, wherein schools' public self-assessment of quality is checked through periodic visits of external "critical friends."

In many rural schools, high teacher and administrative turnover has been a long-standing and ongoing problem, undoubtedly contributing to student underachievement. We believe that this issue can be addressed by creating a more institutionalized and transparent local curriculum -- one that is generated locally and made available for review by the community. Rural schools should be assisted in creating new curricula or building on existing curricula developed for the unique setting of rural Alaskan schools. Such lesson plans and materials should be developed and "owned" by the school, not considered the property of individual teachers. This contrasts with the typical current model, under which teachers in rural Alaska spend a year simply trying to understand the local culture and then two or so years trying to develop appropriate curricula, only to leave with their materials. Over many years, this process has repeated itself, with a crippling loss of continuity in learning for rural Alaska Native students.

We do not believe that state testing is in itself bad. Indeed, we believe that a state test can serve as one useful indicator of student achievement and school quality. But it must not be used as a sole indicator or enforcer of either. When such high stakes are applied to the test, it becomes the end of education rather than the means for its improvement.

We still have hopes that Alaska will live up to its responsibility to educate the next generation -- Alaska Natives and whites alike -- to become contributing members of the state. To do this, Alaska must find a better way to bridge the chasm between our ideals and our realities.

1. Katie Pesznecker, "Exit Tests Reflect Racial Gap," Anchorage Daily News, 22 July 2001, p. A-1.

2. Stephen W. Haycox, "Sheldon Jackson in Historical Perspective: Alaska Native Schools and Mission Contracts, 1885-1894," Pacific Historian, vol. 38, no. 1, 1982, pp. 18-28.

3. G. Williamson McDiarmid, "Governing Schools in Culturally Different Communities: Effects of Decentralization in Rural Alaska" (Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1984).

4. Lisa Delpit, Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (New York: New Press, 1995), p. 96.

5. Danielle Wolffe, "Exit Exam Unfair to Rural Students," Tundra Times (Bethel, Alaska), 19 April 2001, p. 1.

6. Rosemary Shinahara, "Rural Reading Plight: Children Face a Cultural Handicap on School Exit Exams," Anchorage Daily News, 9 February 2001, p. A-1.

7. Personal communication, 8 June 2001.

KEN JONES is an assistant professor of education at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, where PAUL ONGTOOGUK is a research associate at the Institute for Social and Economic Research.