Plans to fix the statewide standardized test involve hiring another company

Despite bitter complaints from Alaska school administrators that reports from new standardized achievement tests were so broad as to be useless for classroom improvements, state education officials say they're preparing for another round of testing again this year.

But this time, state officials say, the Kansans who designed the tests plan to enhance their reports by hiring a subcontractor at their own expense.

Alaska students in grades 3 through 10 will again use computers to take the new statewide standardized test in March and April, as the test's creators hire another company to fix problems with score reporting.

The University of Kansas-based research center, which the state has already paid millions of dollars to develop the new test, will subcontract with eMetric to create more in-depth reports on students' scores, according to Marianne Perie, a project director at the research center, the Achievement and Assessment Institute.

Following several delays, the research center in November released reports about the scores students got when they took the new standardized test for the first time in March. The scores showed that less than half of the state's students met new education standards for English and math, but that's not what concerned educators.

Monica Goyette, an executive director of instruction at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, said Wednesday that the reports are too vague and teachers can't use them to inform instruction, which is frustrating.

"We're really advocating that they look at a different assessment," Goyette said.

Nineteen superintendents, including the one at Mat-Su, signed a letter in the fall that delineated problems with the test, including that the score reports wouldn't provide enough information to show teachers what students do and don't know.

At a legislative meeting Wednesday, Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, said that of 35 school districts responding to her survey, about 56 percent said their district did not support continuing with the new standardized test. Nearly 9 percent said they wanted to continue with the test and 35 percent said they needed more information, Parady said.

"The credibility has been so undermined because of their false start and inaccurate data and lack of timelines," Parady said in an interview after the meeting. "There's so many things wrong with the data and the reporting, the process and the vendor."

Parents at the state's two largest school districts, Anchorage and Mat-Su, didn't see their children's scores until January, according to school officials. This year, parents should get the reports before summer break, Goyette said.

In an effort to provide more detail in those reports, Perie said the research center will pay Texas-based eMetric $150,000 to do the work. The price of the contract between the research center and Alaska's education department will not change, she said.

"If we've lost our credibility, I don't want to waste time getting it back," she said. "I want to give this to someone who has credibility."

In 2014, Alaska's Department of Education and Early Development announced that it was pulling out of a 24-state consortium creating statewide assessments aligned to the Common Core standards.

Instead, it announced it would hire the Kansas research center to create an Alaska-specific test. A five-member committee of staff from the state Education Department, a school improvement coach and Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, selected the research center's proposal over four others.

"It seemed to be a good fit," Hanley said. The research center also made the statewide test for Kansas and develops more specific exams, like one for students with learning disabilities, for other states. The state and the research center entered into a $25 million, five-year contract with options for renewal every year.

Perie said she felt like the rollout of the test went well. The problems started in late summer when two top employees had to take extended time off, one eventually quitting, amid serious medical concerns.

The score reports got delayed and then delayed a few more times. Alaska Education Commissioner Mike Hanley said the state expected to see reports similar to the ones generated by the old statewide standardized test, the Standards Based Assessment. But they weren't.

At Wednesday's meeting, he told legislators: "You're not going to hear from the department, 'No, no everything's fine.' " He added that "there's no one more frustrated than the department, my staff and myself, especially when we have had huge issues with the rollout."

Stewart McDonald, superintendent of the Kodiak Island Borough School District, said he believes in measuring students' progress and setting high standards.

But what he wants is for students to take a test with scores that can be compared to national scores and that also informs educators by clearly explaining what standards are measured on the test, and how students met each of those standards.

"I want our educators focused on kids and given strong tools to get the job done well," he said.

Perie said next year's results will dig further into how students perform on specific standards, and that the new reports will not require the test to grow in length.

"I don't want to give them anything that is not useful, that was not my intent -- ever," Perie said.

Hanley said that instead of students simply getting a score of a 1, 2, 3 or 4, they will get either a "high" or "low" of a specific score, with 3 or 4 meaning the students meet the standards. Schools will have access to more dynamic, online score reports, Perie said.

"We think it's a big step forward," Hanley said. "It's not the step that gets us where we want to be."

As the testing schedule continues as planned, education officials will also continue to look at the standardized test to determine if it's the right fit.

Tegan Hanlon

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