Alaska's education department has yet to pick a standardized test for students this spring, waiting for a change in the law that took effect Wednesday that allows officials to avoid the procedure-laden bid process.
The department hopes to have a contract with a new test vendor in place by Dec. 1 so students can still take a statewide exam this school year, said Margaret MacKinnon, the director of assessment and accountability at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
After the department signs a contract with a test vendor, she said, it will address the training and implementation of the exam in Alaska's 53 school districts and the state-run boarding school in Sitka, Mt. Edgecumbe High School. Federal law requires states to administer a statewide exam each year. If they don't, the federal government can withhold funding.
"We're confident that we'll have an assessment in the spring," MacKinnon said. "What we're looking forward to is not just a one-year assessment, but finding a vendor that we'll be able to work with over the next four or five years — to build into the future."
The department is up against the clock in a decision that follows two years of tumultuous testing for Alaska students.
In the spring of 2015 and 2016, students took a new exam called the Alaska Measures of Progress test, or AMP. An assessment institute at the University of Kansas created the test for Alaska under a five-year, $25 million contract. But after the first round of AMP testing, some educators criticized the delayed score reports as too vague and unhelpful in informing instruction. (The reports showed that less than half of Alaska's students met the state's new education standards for language arts and math.)
During the second year of testing, a piece of heavy equipment severed the internet connection to the Kansas institute, starting a series of missteps that led Alaska to cancel the AMP test altogether. The test relied on an internet connection to work.
The state then ended its contract with the University of Kansas three years early and asked the federal government for an exemption from the testing requirement for 2016. That request remained under review Wednesday, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Now Alaska's education department is again searching for a new test, this time under a new education commissioner, Michael Johnson. The department posted an informational request in August, asking qualified vendors to submit letters detailing how they would prepare, administer and score an annual test for Alaska students. The test would quiz students in certain grades on language arts, math and science. The information request said the test should not cost more than $4.45 million this school year.
Responses to that request remain confidential for now, according to MacKinnon.
MacKinnon said Tuesday that she could not release how many vendors had submitted information, who they were or what they offered. She said that information was confidential because the department remained in its "deliberative process."
"After we've made a decision and actually move forward and make a selection, then information will be public," she said. About the number of vendors, she said, "We've got some options."
As of Wednesday, the department no longer had to follow the bid process, called the "request for proposals" (RFP) process, when contracting for student assessments. Most state agencies must follow a formal bidding process for purchases that exceed $100,000. That's how the department of education selected the AMP test. The RFP process can take months.
But House Bill 156, an education bill passed by the state Legislature this year, had a provision that exempted the state education department from the RFP process when it contracted for student assessments. It did not say what process the department should use instead.
Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, was a sponsor on the bill and said Tuesday that the department asked for the exemption because it would provide more flexibility, more transparency and would allow it to acquire a new test in a shorter period of time. Keller said he took the department's word that the exemption would streamline its process.
"I'm not even sure what the RFP process is so I'm not real sure how it takes longer or why it takes longer," Keller said. "We just wanted to make it as efficient as possible."
Under a formal RFP process, typically no information is made public until an agency has identified a "successful offerer," said Jason Soza, chief procurement officer with the state's Department of Administration. Once that company is identified, the public can request information about the process including copies of the proposals.
MacKinnon said that the department would release some details about the information it received from vendors after a selection was made. She said not following the typical procurement process allows the department to have "deeper conversations" with the vendors that submitted information about how they would administer a test before the department makes a decision. The department allowed about two dozen people to view the information submitted by the vendors during a meeting Friday in Anchorage, MacKinnon said.
Those in attendance included representatives from the Association of Alaska School Boards, Alaska Superintendents Association and school district test coordinators, she said. Tim Parker, president of the teacher union, NEA-Alaska, said he also attended the meeting but had to sign a confidentiality agreement, so he could not talk about what went on.
When asked what teachers want to see in the next standardized test, Parker said teachers would like to see a standardized test that doesn't take up too much of students' time.
"We want a test that is focused on student learning and that allows schools to continue to have the time to do the teaching that we need to do," he said.
Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, was at the meeting Friday and said she appreciated the opportunity to take part in the process of selecting an exam, which she did not have the chance to do when the state selected the AMP test.
"I think I'm reassured that we'll be able to get a solid assessment in place by spring," Parady said, who also signed a confidentiality agreement. "It was reassuring to see that we do have some very good options."
MacKinnon said the state is looking for a test that can be delivered once at the end of the school year, both over the computer and on paper. She said the test will produce score reports to show how well students had learned that year's content, which can be compared across districts.
"You can use it for some broader levels of information," MacKinnon said. "How did your class do this year? Are there areas that you might want to focus on a little bit more?"
The department also wants the test to be "reasonable" in length, she said. She did not yet have a set number of hours or days the test would take students.
"Part of it depends on how the test is designed," MacKinnon said.
She said the education department will encourage all districts to administer the new standardized test, despite recent state legislation. The federal government requires that 95 percent of students participate in the exam.
But House Bill 156, which altered the procurement process, also forbids the state from requiring school districts to administer a statewide standardized test until July 1, 2018. The department can resume requiring the test before that date if the federal government threatens to withhold funding, according to the bill that became law Wednesday.
"We're going to offer it and help promote the idea that it's really important to determine how our schools are doing," MacKinnon said. "We don't have any data from 2016, so the data from this year will be important to set the basis for our new accountability system."
The statewide standardized test is Alaska's main benchmark to compare schools' scores in math, language arts and science. The standardized test is typically given from late March into April.
Parady said she has not heard from any superintendents who plan to not administer the standardized test in the spring.
Anchorage School District has March 28 through April 28 marked off on its testing calendar for this year as the dates for a "Large-Scale State Assessment (TBD)." Bobby Bolan, superintendent at the Bering Strait School District, said the district has been sending out the message that, "We will have a test for spring 2017."
Monica Goyette, Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District assistant superintendent of instruction, said her district supported the education commissioner in having a test to inform the public, drive school improvement and help determine if there's equity among schools.
"I think most superintendents do see the value in assessment," she said. "Just the one we had before was really problematic."