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Alaska cancels all K-12 standardized tests for the year, citing technical problems

Students across the Last Frontier are off the hook when it comes to testing — at least this year. Pictured is the Dalton Highway heading up to Atigun Pass in Alaska’s Brooks Range. (Julia Duin/For The Washington Post)

Alaska officials have canceled the state’s computer-based standardized testing for the year, citing repeated technical problems that were interrupting students’ exams, throwing schools into chaos and threatening the validity of results.

“I don’t believe under the circumstances that the assessment we were administering was a valid assessment,” Susan McCauley, interim commissioner of the state education department, said in an interview Tuesday. “Validity relies on a standardized assessment condition, and things were anything but standardized in Alaska last week.”

The cancellation means that tens of thousands of Alaska’s public school students in grades 3 through 10 won’t sit for math and reading exams that are mandated under federal law, leaving a hole in annual data on student performance statewide, and in each district and individual school. Science tests for students in grades 4, 8 and 10 also were canceled.

Alaska’s decision comes amid a national debate about standardized testing fueled by parents and teachers who say that tests and test prep have warped public schools and siphoned too much time away from instruction. Even the Obama administration, which has played a key role in pushing standardized tests as a way to measure the effectiveness of teachers and schools, has acknowledged that in many cases, children are spending too much time taking tests that in many cases are poorly designed.

Some parents across the country are revolting against standardized testing

McCauley said that besides the technical glitches that plagued Alaska’s tests last week, students were so frustrated by the continued interruptions that they weren’t motivated to do their best. The purpose of a test, she said, is “to provide an accurate assessment of what students know and are able to do. In order to do that, students need to take the assessment seriously,” she said. “The widespread lack of motivation among our students compromised, in my opinion, the validity of the assessment.”

Alaska is one of a very few states that never adopted the Common Core State Standards. But the state did revise its own math and language arts standards in 2012, accompanied by a new test — the Alaska Measures of Progress — which was first administered last year.

This year’s testing began early last week, and it was interrupted Tuesday when a construction worker accidentally cut a fiber optic cable thousands of miles away at the University of Kansas, according to the Alaska education department. The cable was an essential connection between the university’s Achievement and Assessment Institute — which provides Alaska’s state test, the Alaska Measures of Progress — and Alaska schools.

Schools tried to resume testing Thursday, but the connection was intermittent. Each time the system rebooted, some students’ answers disappeared, rendering their tests invalid — they couldn’t start over at the beginning, because they’d have the advantage of answering questions they’d already seen. State officials initially said they would suspend testing until the vendor could assure that the tests would function smoothly, but McCauley ultimately decided to pull the plug, deciding Friday that she didn’t want to leave teachers and students in long-term limbo.

She said teachers were forced to rewrite lesson plans multiple times as testing schedules shifted last week. When the computer system went down on Tuesday, and again Thursday, they “on the fly had to punt in terms of lesson plans and learning.”

“The level of chaos was just beyond what is acceptable in terms of a learning environment for students,” she said.

This was just the second year for the Alaska Measures of Progress, and it will be its last. Even before the latest technical problems, state officials had decided to adopt a new test for the 2016-2017 school year after widespread complaints that the test results were too vague to give teachers the detailed information they need to help students.

“Educators felt that the results did not tell them much,” McCauley said. “They want the results to give them useful information that is actionable.”

She said some students took a paper-based test and officials are still determining what to do with those exams.

The test cost the state about $5 million annually, and officials do not yet know whether they will get a refund for this year. McCauley said she will be “exploring options” regarding the financial terms of the state’s contract with the testing vendor.

Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Education Department, could not say specifically whether the federal government would impose consequences for the Alaska’s cancellation of tests.

“We will continue to work with the state to ensure teachers and parents get the critical information they need on how students are progressing,” Nolt said.

The Education Department recently decided it would not levy penalties for low test-participation rates last year in Nevada, one of several states where new tests were accompanied by technical glitches that caused widespread delays and other problems.