The State of Alaska is throwing out the Alaska Measures of Progress and Alaska Alternate assessments, its method for gauging student performance in the third through tenth grades.
Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Mike Hanley made the announcement Tuesday that this spring will be the last time the two tests will be administered to nearly 73,000 students in the state’s 54 public school districts. The fiercest concerns from a majority of Alaska’s administrators stem from the results.
“The reports should be able to be used to improve learning, and be available in a timely manner so that teachers can make immediate instructional decisions,” said Sean Dusek, superintendent for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. “Ultimately we want something that not only measures how students perform with our standards, but how they measure against their peers nationwide.”
Dusek was among 17 superintendents in the Alaska Superintendents Association who signed a letter to the Department of Education and Early Development this fall, asking leadership to end the five-year, $25 million contract early with the testing vendor, the Achievement and Assessment Institute, based out of the University of Kansas.
In an interview with the Clarion, Hanley said he used his authority to make the final decision to throw out the test, but in conjunction with the concerns of state educators and close discussions with the State Board of Education and Early Development.
“We have had concerns about the rollout (results release) for a long time,” Hanley said. “We want to make sure we are doing everything possible to fix it. There was not a suddenly a straw that broke the camel’s back. We were realizing the possibilities of more errors coming.”
Hanley said he was not anticipating more glitches in the next round of testing. At this point, having any at all is not an option, he said.
“After careful consideration, I believe that it is in the best interest of Alaska to consider new assessment structures that better align to instructional needs and are allowable due to changes in federal law,” Hanley said in a Tuesday press release.
Hanley was referring to the Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law on Dec. 10, 2015. The ESSA reauthorized 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act, originally the Elementary and Secondary Education Act signed in 1965, and allows states more control over how student performance is assessed.
AMP is Alaska’s response to federal mandates that set requirements on how states test student performance. Alaska began developing new, more rigorous standards in 2009, which were adopted in 2012, and which AAI designed the AMP around.
The school district must administer the AMP to receive state funding, said school district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff in a previous Clarion interview.
Hanley said he agrees with Lee Posey, a federal affairs counsel for the Education Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures, who said ESSA is “insufficient, but it is a step in the right direction,” at a Jan. 20 Alaska Joint Education Committee meeting.
Hanley said he wanted to take advantage of what flexibility ESSA does offer, which is compounded by the deep-seeded lack of confidence state educators have with AMP.
Hanley’s decision voids the need for legislation sponsored by Rep. Jim Colver, R-Palmer. The bill would prohibit the department of early education from further administering AMP.
Colver said he supports throwing out the test entirely, in part because of feedback he’s received from state superintendents. Administrators from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District have been particularly vocal about their frustrations with the test, especially the lack of useful data, he said.
For example, a report may show a student is partially meeting standards in math, but doesn’t indicate if they are struggling in multiplication or arithmetic, he said.
“The bottom line is that it costs $67 for each student to take the test, and it’s burning up a lot of precious classroom time that could be used for student learning,” Colver said. “There is no real learning exercise that a student benefits from taking this test.”
Neil Kingston, director for AAI, said he did not have much comment “other than that the educators have lost faith, and we wished that were not the case and we would have liked the opportunity to address the issues.”
In a later email he wrote that “score (results) reporting is a complex process because there are many reasons why it can be hard to concatenate all of each students’ data and make sure it is associated with the correct schools.”
Alaska is relatively new to taking computer-administered assessments. AAI was used to providing to a state with students that had more experience using that model of testing, Kingston said.
“Also, the rural and remote nature of many Alaskan schools created challenges beyond our experience,” Kingston said. “While we ultimately addressed these challenges, the time required to do it right frustrated many Alaska educators.”
Kingston did say he understands Hanley’s decision to go another route.
He said he believes that Alaska’s Department of Education and Early Development does have a history of appropriately responding to the needs of its students based on what options are available. He said he is not sure when the state will send out the RFPs for the next assessment, but that AAI is “not precluded from responding.”
Alaska is the only state that AAI has developed and provided a standardized assessment for outside of Kansas, Kingston said. It has developed and provided tests within the state for nearly 30 years, he said.
“We are not a typical testing company,” Kingston said.
AAI is based out of a university and is not moving toward becoming a major testing company, Kingston said. He said Alaska has a “comparable vision,” which “fits in nicely with other work we are doing.”
Right now, AAI has no contracts or plans to contract with other states, but would be open to doing so if another appropriate partnership is identified in the future, Kingston said.
Hanley and Kingston agree that the only issues were tied up with the results, but that administering the tests went relatively smoothly in the first year.
Not all feedback about the test has been negative.
At the Jan. 20 committee meeting, Lisa Paraday, executive director for the superintedents association, said she has heard from superintendents who said they want to see AMP be given more of a chance. Some consider the test to be a “more realistic measure of student academic achievement,” she said.
Colver said he had superintendents testify that testing with computers would save their school district nearly $35,000 per year, especially in rural areas, which sometimes have to charter a plane to deliver test booklets.
It can also be costly to school districts to administer assessments.
Tim Vlasak, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Director of K-12 Schools, Assessment, and Federal Programs, estimates it cost the school district $70,000 to administer eight standardized tests, including AMP, in the 2014-2015 school year.
“Additionally, staff time is involved for district staff to travel and attend District Assessment Coordinator trainings,” said John O’Brien, assistant superintendent of instruction. “The District Assessment Coordinator then schedules time to train each school’s testing coordinator. Building coordinators then must train each staff member who proctors or administers the assessments.”
Hanley said there were no indicators that there would be issues with AAI’s performance. In the Jan. 20 joint committee meeting, he said they scored higher than any other companies that submitted an RFP.
The state has learned something valuable from the process, Hanley said. Superintendents want to take valuable, “actionable” data from the tests that will directly guide instruction, he said.
Hanley said the Department of Education will be working closely with stakeholders to define what standards will be used to choose the replacement assessment. RFPs will be sent out and hopefully a new vendor will be chosen to provide a test for the 2016-2017 school year.
“By going out to RFP, the state will be able to not only adjust the expectations they outlined in the previous RFP,” Vlasak said. “In addition, it will take into account the ESSA changes, ensuring all aspects of the reauthorization can be met.”
Hanley said it is unlikely that one year would be enough time for a company to develop an entirely new test, and that off-the-shelf assessments may be an option.
“No, it is not guaranteed that we will not have new test by then,” Hanley said. “We have to do this right. We have to make sure the people agree this is where we want to go.”
In all, the state will have paid between $10 million to $15 million for the test once this year’s contract is finished, Hanley said. No request for reimbursement will be made to AAI because what was required of the contract was provided, he said.
Reach Kelly Sullivan at email@example.com.