Alaska education department again seeks information for new standardized exam

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development is looking for another standardized test after it scrapped its latest statewide exam in the spring amid a chaotic few days of testing.

The department posted an informational request Monday asking qualified vendors to submit letters detailing how they would prepare, administer and score an annual test for Alaska. The new test would be offered to school districts in the spring and be based on Alaska-specific academic standards.

The test should not cost more than $4.45 million for the 2016-2017 school year and should quiz students on language arts, math and science, according to the department's 22-page request for information.

Monday's request follows a turbulent year for standardized testing in Alaska. In spring 2015, students took a new standardized test administered on computers, the Alaska Measures of Progress, which was created by the Achievement and Assessment Institute at the University of Kansas under a five-year, $25 million contract.

Educators grew aggravated in the fall when students' score reports were repeatedly delayed. Then, once released, some educators said the reports were too vague.

In January, the state said it would cancel the AMP test, but schools would have to administer it one last time in spring 2016. The state would look for a replacement test, then-Commissioner Mike Hanley said. The federal government requires states to administer a standardized test each year.

But spring 2016 testing fell prey to a mishap: A backhoe in Kansas severed a fiber-optic cable providing internet service to the university campus, shutting down testing for Alaska. Susan McCauley, Alaska's interim education commissioner, abruptly canceled the state's standardized test for 2016.

A few months later, the Alaska Legislature passed a bill that said the state could not require a school district to administer a statewide standardized test until July 2018 — unless the federal government threatened to withhold funding, in which case the department could again require the standardized tests.

Margaret MacKinnon, Alaska's director of assessment and accountability, said Monday the state plans to offer school districts a new test in spring 2017 but will not require them to administer it.

"Districts will hopefully give the test for the right reasons," MacKinnon said. "It's important to measure student progress."

MacKinnon said the state had not heard if the federal government would withhold funding if the state didn't require a standardized test this school year. While the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, replaces the more rigid No Child Left Behind Act, it still requires annual statewide testing in math and language arts for students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, plus tests in science.

Alaska's education department is also still in the process of asking the federal government for a waiver from testing requirements the state failed to meet during the 2015-16 school year. Eric Fry, department spokesperson, said he did not know when the state would receive a response from Washington, D.C.

MacKinnon said the state has taken extra precautions with this year's request to test vendors to ensure better results than the previous failed exam. She said when the department last sought a new test, it was a time when Alaska was just entering "the world of computer-based assessments." The state's written expectations lacked some specific language for topics including technology and support.

EEDD anticipates issuing a contract for the 2016-17 school year and "will consider annual renewal options through 2020-2021," according to the information request. Vendors have until Sept. 6 to submit ideas.