State must fix or discard new standardized test, education commissioner says

Alaska Education Commissioner Mike Hanley said the state has two options when it comes to addressing educator complaints about its new standardized test: It can try to fix the test, or ditch it and get a new one.

"We've got a tough road ahead of us," Hanley said in an interview Thursday at the day-long Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development meeting in Anchorage.

Students in grades three through 10 took the new computer-administered standardized test, called Alaska Measures of Progress, for the first time last spring. They answered questions based on new academic standards for English and math that education officials called more rigorous than the previous standards. The percent of students meeting the new standards, compared to the old, fell dramatically.

But that's not the problem, Hanley said. Superintendents have complained about the lack of specifics provided in the test results. An October letter to the board signed by 19 superintendents said the results were too vague to inform instruction.

For instance, students may have gotten a score of 1 to 4 for math, but that wasn't broken down into specific components like fractions so teachers could see where their students needed help, Hanley said.

At the board meeting, Hanley said the state education department would conduct a comprehensive review of the test and present a report to the board in March.

"It's important for us to figure out how to move forward," he said. "We need to understand how the stakeholders are feeling. We need to understand how this is impacting the schools."

The state remains engaged in a roughly $25 million, five-year contract with the Achievement and Assessment Institute at the University of Kansas, which developed the new standardized test for Alaska.

Marianne Perie, a project director at the Kansas institute in charge of creating the test, said in an email that the test couldn't provide the level of detail superintendents wanted because it was too short.

"We will be meeting with the superintendents in January to hear their ideas for the types of information they would like to receive and see if we can calculate that from the current design or whether we need to lengthen that assessment," she said.

Hanley estimated that taking the test took students roughly five hours -- about two hours less than the former Standards Based Assessment. Still, the state expected results to be presented in a similar way, he said.

Brian Gong, a senior associate with the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, told the board Thursday that testing a very specific skill set, like multiplication or mixed fractions, would take about 50 items on an exam.

"So if you wanted to get that information you might have to give not a little bit longer test (but) a lot longer test," he said.

After Gong's presentation, the nine-member education board, appointed by the governor, moved into executive session to talk about the state's contract with the Achievement and Assessment Institute. When they returned to the public meeting, Hanley and board members said the test needed to be reviewed.

"I am pleased with this direction going forward and I just re-emphasize that a comprehensive review is necessary," said board member Sue Hull.

Board member John Harmon said he was disappointed with the performance of the Kansas contractor and looked forward to the evaluation.

Hanley said if the state did away with the new standardized test, it would have to adopt another one -- at least for most students.

President Barack Obama signed a new K-12 education law Thursday that ended No Child Left Behind, the basis for using tests to show achievement, but the new law still requires the state to test students in reading and math in grades three through eight and report on data for high school students.

With spring quickly approaching, the state doesn't have a lot of time to decide what's next for the Alaska Measures of Progress test before students log on to computers to take it again.

"We don't have the ability to get another test in place by April," Hanley said. He said the review will be an ongoing process into next year.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.