What's next after Alaska cancels its federally mandated standardized test

A series of setbacks have marked the short history of Alaska's newest, computer-based statewide standardized test, culminating last Friday when the state's interim education commissioner canceled the exam altogether, citing technical problems she said sent schools into an uproar.

But the decision to ditch the exam means the state now must answer to the federal government, which requires states to administer an annual test to students in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school. The decision also leaves unanswered questions about the state's multimillion-dollar contract with the developer of the test, the Achievement and Assessment Institute at the University of Kansas, and how it will resolve payments made by Alaska for the exam.

Susan McCauley, Alaska's interim education commissioner, said Monday she doesn't know how canceling the exam would impact the Alaska-Kansas contract, though she said she had already gotten questions about the subject, including whether Alaska would seek a refund of money already paid.

"I've been primarily focused on ameliorating the chaos that was occurring in schools and the compromising of instructional time. I just haven't dug into it yet," McCauley said. "That will likely be the next thing I need to give some thought to. I just haven't had time up to this point."

The standardized test was developed by the on-campus Kansas institute and administered to Alaska students in grades 3 through 10 for the second time starting last week. The exam, the Alaska Measures of Progress, tested students on state-specific academic standards for English and math.

But a construction accident interrupted the exam on March 29, the Tuesday set aside for the tests. A backhoe in Kansas severed a major fiber-optic cable that provided internet service to the university campus. It shut down the computer-based testing for students in Alaska and in Kansas, which also had its test developed by the university. The busted connection also halted testing for students with severe disabilities in more than a dozen states who take an alternative test developed by the university, said Marianne Perie, the project director for the Alaska exam at the Kansas institute.

"All of it went down," she said. "Hospital computers were down. Hospital records were down. It had huge implications."

Testing was suspended March 30 in Alaska. Perie said the university thought it had patched the cables by the next day. Students in Kansas were able to start taking their tests on the morning of March 31. But by the time Alaska students started their exams, the system crashed. Perie said perhaps too many school administrators had attempted to run online reports in the morning to see where their students were in the exam, overloading the system.

"I suppose arguably our vendor should have known that it wasn't ready to go on Thursday, but they didn't," said McCauley, Alaska's interim commissioner. "And the system had been patched, they believed. And I believed it. They believed that it would work and what happened, inevitably, was that the bandwidth with the patched system could not support those in Kansas and Alaska testing at the same time."

Perie said the Kansas institute hoped to have the weekend to work through the issues, but on April 1, a Friday, she got a call from McCauley. She said McCauley told her that Alaska would not move forward with the AMP exam this year. McCauley also called off the science tests for students in grades 4, 8 and 10.

"She's in a tough spot and she had to make a tough call. And she did what she thought was best," Perie said. Students in Kansas continued with their exams this week, she said.

McCauley called the level of chaos in Alaska schools last week "significant." She said she couldn't ask educators to go through another week of uncertainty. On top of the severed cable, she said, school staff reported that when students could take the test, some had screens come up blank where there should have been questions and answers.

"They would be going along fine: number 12 is fine, number 13 is fine," McCauley said. "And then they would hit number 14 and there was no question. That was sporadically happening around the state."

Robert Doyle, superintendent of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District, said there were additional challenges for home-schoolers. He said eight students in his district had to travel to Ketchikan, some by boat, to take the exam.

The destruction of the cable and later suspension of the exam "compromised their time and schedules and they were twiddling their thumbs," he said.

Other problems with the exam arose last year, months after students completed it for the first time. Score reports were repeatedly delayed throughout the fall and not released until November. Parents didn't see results until even later. On top of that, some school officials didn't like the way the results were presented, describing reports as too vague to inform instruction.

In January, the state education department announced it would dump the AMP test entirely and look for a new exam. It would end its five-year, $25 million contract with the University of Kansas three years early, on June 30, 2016, said former Education Commissioner Mike Hanley at the time. He stepped down March 1.

Each year of the contract, the state pays the university about $5 million, dividing the payments into monthly installments, Perie said. So by this March, the state had paid the university roughly $9 million for the exam.

Margaret MacKinnon, Alaska's director of assessment and accountability, said each year the federal government has chipped in about $3.5 million of the $5 million cost for the exam, while the state funds the rest.

Perie said she hoped to sit down and work with Alaska education officials to determine which costs had already been incurred and which had not.

"We're a university. We're not a for-profit company," Perie said. "I don't think there's even a way for us to make money off of this."

Aside from the finances, Alaska will also have to explain to the federal government why it ditched the mandated test. McCauley was in Washington, D.C., last Monday for a conference on the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law passed in December 2015 that replaced the more rigid No Child Left Behind Act.

McCauley said she also met with staff from the U.S. Department of Education "to apprise them of our situation." She said she and her team must provide the federal department with documentation that backs up the decision to discontinue testing this year.

"At the end of the day, if the (federal) department felt we had inappropriately discontinued testing, they could withhold federal funds. They have the authority to do that," McCauley said. But she said she stands by her decision. "I am confident that the Department of Education in D.C. will feel that the decision is a justifiable one," she said.

Dorie Nolt, press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said in a brief statement the department would continue to work with Alaska to ensure teachers and parents received "the critical information they need on how students are progressing."

The federal department waived testing requirements for Nevada for 2015 after persistent technical problems with a test created by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a coalition of states and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Nevada failed to meet part of the federal mandate that requires states to test 95 percent of its students, The Associated Press reported.

McCauley pointed to Nevada as an example of another state that had issues with standardized testing. She said Alaska law directs the education department to comply with federal law.

"The federal requirements are that we have to administer an assessment in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school," she said. "The Elementary and Secondary Education Act also says that these assessments have to be valid and reliable and of adequate technical quality and my belief is that at this point the assessment in Alaska doesn't meet those requirements any longer."

McCauley said the state department hopes to put out a request seeking a new vendor for next year's exam by the end of this month. The department has contacted superintendents across the state to see what they want in the next exam, she said. While the federal Every Students Succeeds Act provides more flexibility than No Child Left Behind, it still requires the statewide testing.

Tegan Hanlon

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