Edwina Left Behind

Standardized tests take their toll in rural Alaska

By Sören Wuerth

Illustrator: Sören Wuerth

The woman from the state education department had come to show us “the data.” She stood in an auditorium, in front of Ketchikan school district’s some 300 teachers and staff and began a choppy Powerpoint presentation describing the standards on how students should soon be judged.

The official, dressed in a black blouse and black sport jacket, called herself a “recovering” math and middle school teacher.

During her presentation, which I’d seen before, we were quizzed on the meaning of acronyms and asked multiple-choice questions about No Child Left Behind. Judging from comments and muffled heckling behind me, I was not the only teacher who considered the education department’s presentation demeaning.

As I listened, I reflected on Edwina, a student in the 12th-grade language arts class I taught last year in the remote Cu’pik Eskimo village of Chevak. Chevak School is the dominant feature in the rural, western Alaska village. Just over 300 students shuffle from small, modular homes to the K-12 school, leaning into the wind most of the year to get there, crossing swells of snow drifts in the winter.

Edwina was tough. She had a round face, always wore the same sweatshirt and oval glasses, and maneuvered through two communities rife with drugs and alcohol like a running back moving past hapless opponents.

Edwina’s family lived in the coastal village of Hooper Bay, but she attended Chevak’s school 20 miles inland, hoping her education would be superior to that of the neighboring village. On weekends, she’d leave her grandmother’s place and drive a snowmobile 40 miles across frozen tundra, in weather that dipped to 60 below, to visit her home village. Edwina beat up boys who picked on her brothers, swore, and chewed tobacco. She turned to her schoolwork with the same rugged self-assurance.

A senior, Edwina needed to pass the state’s High School Graduation Qualifying Exam to receive a diploma. Early in the year, I downloaded practice tests the state education department offered on its site. The sample test was three years old and students were so familiar with it they had many of the answers memorized.

Edwina didn’t complain. She took the test seriously, as she did most of her school assignments. She remained after class to finish projects, always smiling, easily falling into laughter. She was a good writer. One of her stories, detailing the time she got lost riding through a blizzard behind her father on his snowmobile, eventually appeared in a journal of high school writing. A disciplined student, Edwina maintained a straight-A average throughout her school career. When a storm gripped the village and other students decided not to go to school, Edwina would invariably trudge through wind-packed snow to ensure an immaculate attendance record.

As the woman from the state droned on about formulaic assessment, I thought of how, as far as the state was concerned, Edwina’s entire education — all that she’d learned and all that she had endured to obtain it — would come down to one test.

Kids in the village struggle to memorize vocabulary and concepts with which they have no connection. A counselor in my village told me the story of an elementary student who began crying during a test. When the counselor asked her what was wrong, the girl pointed to the word “curb” and said she didn’t know what it meant. In her community, on a dusty knoll above thousands of acres of barren tundra, residents travel on dirt paths with four-wheelers and snowmobiles.

When a storm gripped the village and other students decided not to go to school, Edwina would invariably trudge through wind-packed snow to ensure an immaculate attendance record. Illustration: Sören Wuerth

It seems every teacher who has worked in Alaska’s rural school system has a story of the cultural ignorance of standard tests. A question that stumped a student in my wife’s 2nd-grade class asked for the best choice on how to get to a hospital: boat, ambulance, or airplane. Since the nearest hospital is 300 miles away, the student circled the logical, yet “incorrect,” answer: airplane.

In Alaska, only about 40 percent of Native students graduate from high school, compared to almost 70 percent for all other ethnicities combined. There were 13 dropouts in Chevak the year I taught there. Generally, white students pass high-stakes tests at double the rate of their Native counterparts. In the region encompassing Chevak, an area the size of Iowa and dotted with more than 50 villages, only about a quarter of the students pass reading tests.

Edwina had lived her entire life in the remote villages of Hooper Bay and Chevak. It’s a desolate region where the wind blows almost constantly across a vast delta of winding rivers, sloughs, and subarctic tundra. Edwina had to work hard to support her family. Her anna (grandma) and atta (grandpa) as well as other family members relied on her to help prepare food, cook, wash laundry, run to the village store, and perform hundreds of other tasks.

She tried to stay awake in class and, when I joked with her once about her sleepiness, she erupted in uncharacteristic anger: “I’ve been up all night working, babysitting, helping my anna and atta!”

Yet, the state graduation-qualifying exam would not ask about her snowmobiling experience, subsistence hunting on the frozen ocean, collecting driftwood, or preparing a traditional sauna called a “steam.”

Worried about previous years’ lackluster test results, Edwina took a supplementary class, from another teacher, designed specifically to “teach to the test.” In my classroom, I deviated from language arts units geared toward critical thinking, inquiry-based learning, and cultural literacy, and devoted several weeks of classroom instruction to review test strategies, test content, and preparation. We analyzed sample tests, practiced using the process of elimination to discard distracting choices, and even discussed cultural biases in test questions.

But in a village where kids are raised with a linguistically distinct form of English—called village English—and where young people struggle daily with the effects of economic hardship, domestic violence, and cultural disintegration, tests that ask students to compare personal digital assitants are irrelevant. Alaska Natives in rural villages have far greater concerns. With Alaska’s Native communities suffering from the highest rates of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, teen suicide, and child abuse in the nation, staying healthy—and even alive—is the paramount motive.

I tried to take these real concerns into consideration in my classroom by making learning relevant to conditions my students faced in their communities while maintaining high expectations in an academically rigorous curriculum. We read books by Native American authors such as Sherman Alexie, reconstructed traditional narratives into plays, and analyzed comparisons between “home” language and Standard English.

I conducted a grant-writing unit so students could realize an authentic outcome for composition. Edwina wrote an introduction to a grant that was ultimately awarded to her senior class.

Little did I know, however, how severely high-stakes tests would undercut my efforts to motivate my Alaska Native students for reading and writing.

Near the end of the year, the counselor came into my classroom. She stood solemnly by the door, as someone would who is about to deliver the news of a death in the family. She held the test results and waited until students were sitting down. 

When the seniors looked at their test scores, some seemed unfazed by the results. Edwina, however, said she felt sick.

Because she didn’t pass the test, Edwina didn’t get a diploma when she graduated later that spring. None of her female classmates did.

Edwina wrote a letter about her shattered hopes and her view of schools—how she’d “been working hard in school all this time” since kindergarten, how she wanted to earn the diploma her older sister never received, how she’s afraid she’ll end up living with her mother the rest of her life. When she read her letter aloud, other students in class fell silent. 

I suggested she send her letter to the editor of the Bethel paper, but drawing attention to oneself and one’s problems is not customary among the Cu’pik Eskimo.

In Ketchikan, the department of education representative closed her presentation, saying, “Everyone’s goal is to increase student achievement.”

Edwina accomplished that goal. The state and the school district failed her.