I have mixed feelings about standardized testing. As a mom, I dislike that my children’s teachers are required to teach to the test instead of spending time instilling in them a love of learning. As a data junkie, however, I adore them. The sheer volume of spreadsheets and ways to compare schools, communities and states is nothing less than exhilarating.
So, with two of my children in elementary school and standardized test scores in hand, I set out to determine, based on data, which Juneau grade school is the best one.
I began by analyzing the percentage of advanced 2012-2013 Standards Based Assessments (SBA) for reading, writing, math and science at our six elementary schools. There are four rankings that students can receive for their test score: advanced, proficient, below proficient and far below proficient. For the purposes of my inquiry, I decided to only look at the percentage of students receiving an “advanced” score at each school.
Now, I thought that the results would be close or ambiguous — that was not the case. Auke Bay Elementary School was the clear winner by a mile, having the highest percentage of students receiving a score of “advanced” in each of these four categories, as well as overall. Not only did nearly half of Auke Bay third through fifth graders (the grades tested by SBA) test in the advanced category overall, only one out of six kids tested below proficient.
However, since there was a great deal more data to mine for my analysis, I decided to see if there was more to the story.
I wondered if perhaps there was a correlation between students from families that are considered to be “economically disadvantaged.” The definition of this is long and formulaic, but for purposes of this column think of a family of four with a total household income of under $55,000. I calculated the percent of students taking the test at each school that were economically disadvantaged, and found that the schools were nearly in reverse order to the “advanced” rankings above. Not only that, Auke Bay had only a fraction of lower income children, with only one out of 10 students from less well-to-do households. Glacier Valley Elementary, on the other hand, had more than 58 percent taking the test who fell below the economic threshold.
So, I had not yet determined which elementary school in Juneau was the best — I had only determined where the economic disparity lay, and so I tried again to compare “apples to apples” among the scores. The data permitted me to isolate and compare the test scores of economically disadvantaged kids across all schools, as well as those with an economic “advantage,” so to speak.
Just analyzing the scores of kids from economically challenged households, Glacier Valley had the highest “advanced” scores for writing — although Auke Bay still took top marks for reading, math and science, as well as taking second place for writing (Harborview took second in each of the other categories).
However, when looking at the test scores of those kids without economic disadvantages, a higher percentage of Harborview students received advanced scores in the reading and writing categories, with Auke Bay coming in third and fourth, respectively, in these categories (Auke Bay was also beat out by Gastineau for reading, and by both Mendenhall River and Riverbend for writing). But Auke Bay’s sky high science scores and top math scores still put it ahead of the pack overall (Harborview came in second in each of these categories).
Despite my initial goal, I don’t think I determined which grade school is the best in all of Juneau using standardized test scores. I concluded a few other things instead.
There is clearly a strong correlation between household income and test results, but despite of this each school seems to have their own unique strengths. Harborview is economically diverse and has a strong core of high scorers. Gastineau’s share of advanced scorers is much higher than their ratio of economically disadvantaged students should suggest, a triumph in its own right. Glacier Valley has the smallest score differential between those from differing economic backgrounds. Mendenhall River and Riverbend have some solid performers. And finally, Auke Bay elementary school is very strong academically, and must be doing something incredible when it comes to their science instruction.
• Meilani Schijvens, a lifelong Juneauite, is the owner of Rain Coast Data. She has 20 years of professional and academic experience in the fields of economics, transportation and natural resources relating to Southeast Alaska.