Student Success in Your Schools – It is Local

Lon Garrison, Executive Director, AASB

Standardized tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), have lately been the tool of choice for public school critics bent on demonstrating how poorly public education performs. It is often used as the single best indicator of student outcomes because it is a “normalized test” carried out across the country and theoretically permitted comparisons from state to state or school to school. Thus, it has been easy for many with little public education experience to develop arguments of causation that may be wholly inaccurate and inappropriate. In terms of pure statistical protocol and process, it is about as sterilized as it comes. 

Many of us in public education, whether you are a school board member or educational professional, know that student success cannot be measured by a single test given once a year. As a locally elected school board member in Sitka and a father of two daughters, I quickly realized that public education is a complex system. Public schools must take all students and do their best to provide an environment allowing each child to learn and thrive. It is a huge and, at times, overwhelming task. However, as I learned over the years as a school board member, school systems that tend to be most effective don’t focus on a single assessment to measure success; they use a myriad of indices to monitor the growth and development of the whole student. Successful schools are responsive to their role and support of the entire community, its values, culture, and identity, and in turn, that supports students.

When AASB works with local school boards and their stakeholders to develop strategic plans and define their mission and vision for the district, we often ask, what does student success look like for your community? What do you hope your students? What will they need to learn so that they can be successful and contribute to the success of their community? Rarely, if ever, have we had a district say we want to be number one on the 4th grade NAEP exam for reading or math. What most stakeholders articulate is that they want their children to be able to be successful in any career of their choice. They want them to have fulfilling, satisfying lives that contribute to the success of their families and communities. They carry on their cultural values, traditions, and identities.

At AASB, we have long known that public education success depends upon supporting the whole child. That means that school systems must evaluate, monitor and support what we call the “Conditions for Learning.” The School Climate and Connectedness Survey is one such tool that AASB offers. Using this survey, educators, school boards, and stakeholders can gain insight into the school climate and how well students, faculty, and families are connected to their schools. What might be missing? What is working well? Our premise is that schools that demonstrate a highly positive school climate also have students, staff, and well-connected communities. A byproduct of this condition is that those student populations usually perform better on standardized tests and generally are much more likely to graduate and pursue a successful postsecondary education.

As local school board members and educational professionals, we are responsible for making this happen and telling the whole story. I urge you to constantly look at evidence such as improving attendance, declining discipline issues, greater parental and community engagement, and how well-attended your extracurricular and arts activities are. What can you say about your schools’ and students’ success? Does your business community support your schools? Do you see improving graduation rates? Are your students pursuing postsecondary opportunities? Does your community support school maintenance and construction bonds? Do people want to move to or stay in your community because they know you provide an excellent education?

Thinking back to my time on the Sitka school board, I often think about the schools and students there and the sense of community I felt most of the time. I know not all students felt supported, so as a board, we focused on ways to improve. One fond memory I have is attending graduation for the alternative high school, Pacific High.

I distinctly remember attending the ceremony one year and handing out diplomas to the eight graduating students. One of those was a young woman who had accompanied the board to the AASB annual conference and had attended the Youth Leadership Institute. While a bit shy at first, she soon blossomed with her fellow students from across the state, and it was great to get to know her. What was most amazing to me was learning that she was so focused on attending medical school. She had not had an easy or conventional childhood. 

At the Pacific High graduation, I asked if she planned to attend medical school. With a huge smile, she confidently replied yes and, in fact, had received a sizable scholarship. She had succeeded because Sitka had a school board, staff, and community that believed in her, and that was all that mattered. It was then and there, I knew that student outcomes are so much more than standardized tests.

Don’t let others define Alaska’s educational success or portray your work and dedication as a failure because of one measure. Be true to your mission, hold yourselves accountable, and support the whole child and community. The tests will take care of themselves. Tell others your story of success and the challenges that jeopardize your efforts.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me with questions, concerns, or comments as we move forward. It is incumbent upon us all to do our part and make certain Alaska’s public education system stands a fighting chance.

Sincerely yours,

Lon Garrison

Executive Director, AASB