High Stakes Testing

Hit by Testing Provider Outages, Alaska Cancels Online Assessments

Alaska is dumping this year's online assessments for its students after continued technical problems plagued the exam process. The maelstrom began when a major fiber cable was damaged by a backhoe on a university campus in Kansas where Alaska's testing provider is located.

The Achievement & Assessment Institute, housed at the University of Kansas Lawrence campus, runs the Center for Educational Testing & Evaluation (CETE), which provides assessment services to schools in 18 states, including Kansas and Alaska. The fiber cable damage that occurred there on March 29 severed the campus' Internet service, interrupting state summative testing in Kansas schools as well. Also affected were students in several other states taking Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM), an alternate assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities.

Although the university was able to patch the cabling by the following day, access was limited to some buildings on campus. KU's IT organization announced on March 31 that it expected full restoration of the fiber cable to "continue over the next several weeks."

In Alaska, testing had started on Tuesday when students in grades 3 to 10 began taking online assessments in English language arts and mathematics and students in grades 4, 8 and 10 commenced science assessments. However, that work was interrupted at 10:30 a.m. Alaska time when the connection to the testing provider was severed.

CETE Director Marianne Perie assured education leaders that anybody "kicked off the system during testing" wouldn't lose answers that had been saved and "should be able to continue where they left off," according to reporting by the Wichita Eagle.

However, that wasn't the case for some students in Alaska. By Thursday, testing had resumed, but even then, the connection to the online assessments was spotty, and some schools reported that student answers already entered into the testing system had disappeared.

According to Susan McCauley, the state's interim commissioner of Education & Early Development, although the vendor had assured her department that the "system was ready," students who had already begun their exams weren't all returned to the point in the test where they'd left off; in some cases, the exam restarted for them.

That outcome rendered the affected tests invalid. "As soon as a child has seen the same question twice, that’s an invalid test," she told THE Journal.

On top of that, she added, the start/stop/restart process has "caused serious chaos in terms of schedules."

Insisting that the state had "no other option," McCauley, who has been in her current post for about a month, made the decision to cancel this year's Alaska Measures of Progress assessments. The state will also begin the process of shopping for a new testing provider to deliver the online exams to be used in next year's assessment rounds.

That decision should please the Alaska Superintendents Association, which earlier this year called on the state to place a hold on the assessments and cancel plans to give the tests this spring, according to coverage in the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

What's unknown, said McCauley, is the impact the decision to cancel testing will have on the state's federal funding for education. While the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires a state to give a statewide assessment that's "valid, reliable and [of] high technical quality," in this situation, "we no longer have a valid assessment for the state of Alaska," she noted. "I am very hopeful that our unique circumstances justify my decision on Friday and the U.S. Department of Education will not withhold any funds from Alaska. But that remains to be seen at this point."

What's at risk is a relatively small portion of the state education budget. Alaska received about $324 million in federal funding for public education in fiscal year 2013, making up about 12 percent of its total expenditure of $2.7 billion for that same year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Alaska was an early member of the Smarter Balanced. However, it left that consortium in January 2014 and signed a five-year, $5 million contract with CETE to deliver assessments based on the state's own set of learning standards. Alaska had previously worked with the same organization as a part of the DLM consortium. Last year was the first in which the new CETE-delivered assessments were given to students. In that round, problems surfaced related to late access to results and "data glitches."

In spite of the continuing troubles with online assessments experienced by the state, McCauley is still an advocate. "What’s happened does not undermine my belief in assessment, or the value of online assessment," she said. "Alaska needs to be better than were we are now, and I am confident that we will be in a better place in the future with our assessment. But we’ve got some work to do in Alaska."

About the Authors

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].