By Melinda Munson

Each year, Skagway School Superintendent Josh Coughran crunches the data as soon as the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development releases test scores. For the fifth year in a row, and the fifth year since the statewide assessment tool, PEAKS, was implemented in Alaska, Skagway School District placed first in math and English Language Arts.

When asked if placing top in the state ever becomes boring, Coughran answered, “No, never. It gets to be an expectation.”

Skagway School also scored first in science for the past four years, but science marks were unavailable for 2021 due to statewide field testing.

The 2021 results showed Skagway significantly ahead of every other Alaska district.

In English Language Arts, 81.97% of Skagway School students tested proficient and advanced. The state average is 39.5% with Petersburg testing the next highest at 63%.

In math, 77.42% of Skagway School students tested proficient and advanced. The state average is 32.38% with Wrangell testing the next highest at 51.96%.

While Coughran is pleased by the numbers, he’s setting his sights even higher with 100% proficiency as the end goal. Coughran said Skagway students are “dialed in and paying attention” to the assessments and he hears kids talking about them in the hallway.

But Coughran acknowledged that test scores aren’t the end product of an education. 

“Our focus is on knowledge and achievement,” Coughran said.

Coughran noted that PEAKS assessments are only “one indicator of success.” Other factors such as SAT scores and AP testing can indicate student performance. 

Coughran said MAPS testing, district testing done several times a year with results provided the next day, can be the most helpful to students as it shows where students need increased support. 

According to Coughran, Skagway School currently has 127 students in preschool through twelfth grade. Preschool is offered at no cost beginning at age three. There is no information on how many students qualify for free lunch as the school does not participate in the National School Lunch Program. 

The National Center for Education Statistics listed Skagway School’s population at 140, with 107 of Skagway’s students as white, eight as Asian, four as Hispanic and 14 identified as two or more races.

Along with record-breaking assessment scores, the school is learning a new testing skill — how to screen for COVID-19. Recently, Skagway School gained CLIA accreditation and became its own testing site. With training from Dahl Memorial Clinic and supplies provided free from the state health department, the school tests students involved with extracurricular activities twice weekly. Teachers can opt into testing.

“I never thought that this was something that would become part of my job,” said Cindy O’Daniel, school business manager, as she cleaned up after a recent batch of testing.

According to O’Daniel, testees swab themselves under the supervision of herself, Coughran or Administrative Assistant Kaylie Smith, who then process the samples using an agent (it looks like eye drops) and specialized cardboard cards. School board member Denise Sager also volunteers her time. All results get reported to the state.

“We’ve become pretty efficient at testing here,” O’Daniel said. The team can get everyone screened within a couple of hours. O’Daniel said having the school complete the testing is helpful because it “takes the burden off the clinic.”

According to Coughran, new school policy means that two negative tests in one week allows student athletes to participate in their sport without a mask. 

“If we’re going to the lengths we are to test those kids, we should trust those results,” Coughran said. He described the new policy as “commonplace” across Southeast.

While Coughran would like to extend testing to all students, there might not be enough testing supplies. 

“We’re already starting to see some delays from the state warehouse,” he said.