Alaska Standardized Test Promises Continuity, Less Time Testing

The Alaska System of Academic Readiness (AK STAR) exam was given to Alaska K–12 students for the first time in the spring of 2022. Previously, there were two different spring assessments administered, MAPS and PEAKS. AK STAR replaced the PEAKS spring assessment in 2022 while the spring 2023 AK STAR assessment will replace the spring MAP assessment. AK STAR has two primary advantages. First, it will help educators identify students needing additional support and help them intervene early. AK STAR also promises to reduce testing time by replacing the two spring assessments. Implementing one new assessment to replace two redundant assessments will reduce testing times and allow educators and parents to intervene earlier with struggling students, while also giving parents, educators, and taxpayers more transparency regarding school performance.

Assessments are used to measure student mastery of state standards in order to provide parents with objective information about their children, identify students and schools needing additional support, and help hold schools accountable to taxpayers who fund education. Educators rely on two types of tests to measure student progress: summative assessments and interim assessments. Summative assessments, such as AK STAR, are administered at the end of the school year. MAP is an interim assessment administered in the fall, winter, and spring, and is used to measure student progress across the school year to help teachers make day-to-day decisions about their instructional practices. The MAP assessment is currently used by 49 of Alaska’s 54 districts.  

Alaska’s summative assessment structure has changed several times since 2016. Before 2016, the paper Standards Based Assessment (SBA) was used to assess progress each spring. In the 2015-2016 school year, the attempt was made to switch to the computer-based Alaska Measure of Progress (AMP) summative assessment for grades 3 through 10. Repeated technical errors disrupted its validity and the exam administration was canceled. The computer-based Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools (PEAKS) exam was used between 2017 and 2021. AK STAR is also a computer-based exam and was used for the first time in 2022. 

For students, parents, and teachers the AK STAR score-equivalency — the ability to compare scores between the two tests — with the MAP exam will be useful in tracking growth throughout the school year and across previous years. Interim assessments are given during the school year for two primary purposes: evaluating progress and providing a guide for teachers to adjust their teaching methods and provide extra support to struggling students. Retaining the fall and winter MAP examinations are crucial for providing data to determine where students are as they begin each grade and how they have progressed throughout the school year.  

The primary advantage of AK STAR is that it will replace the spring administration of MAP, thus reducing the number of tests students must take. Duplicating two tests in the spring—a summative assessment evaluating if students are at grade level, and an interim assessment recording progress since midyear—doesn’t provide more information. AK STAR reduces testing time by adopting a score scale and test design that is continuous with MAP exam feedback throughout the school year. 

The standards-setting process performed by educators this summer will create an equivalence, called a Rasch Unit score (RIT), to the MAP scores reported from the fall and winter exams. MAP scores in the fall and winter are intended to predict the student’s proficiency on the AK STAR exam in the spring, allowing teachers and parents to intervene in areas of concern early. 

The logistics of AK STAR are similar to PEAKS and the MAP exams. AK STAR will replace the spring MAP exam beginning in 2023 and has replaced the PEAKS exam since 2022 as Alaska’s summative assessment.  

AK STAR is an untimed computer-based exam, but “it is estimated that most students can complete the full test in 120 minutes.” Appropriate testing times for each section are recommended for different grades and subjects. AK STAR contains some universal and content-specific accessibility tools available to all students, such as calculators, formula tables, glossaries, and notepads, which are embedded in the computer-based exam. Accommodations may be available to English-language learners or students with disabilities, which do not change the validity of the exam. Modifications to test content, format, and administration conditions may also be available, but these alter the validity of the assessment in comparison to other students. 

To perform standards-setting, the difficulty and questions in the 2022 administration of AK STAR were fixed. In future exams, the computer-based test will demonstrate adaptive design: it will adjust its difficulty as the student answers questions correctly and incorrectly. The MAP exams are also dynamic, but it is unclear yet whether AK STAR will be dynamic in the same way that MAP tests are; AK STAR’s dynamic features are “still under development.” 

Between March 28 and April 29, 2022, students took both the spring MAP and AK STAR. Standards-setting was performed by a group of 50 educators in June 2022 to determine the range of scores that correspond to each achievement level based on the achievement level descriptors (ALDs), originally adopted in 2012 for ELA and math. Draft ALDs were revised in the fall of 2021 by 32 Alaskan educators 

There are four proposed achievement levels in the new exam: Needs Support, Approaching Proficient, Proficient, and Advanced. There are also two sub-levels of achievement, High and Low, within each proficiency level to quantify student growth within a proficiency level. In the PEAKS exam, there were also four achievement levels: Far Below Proficient, Below Proficient, Proficient, and Advanced.  

The AK STAR achievement levels will be broadly comparable to the PEAKS achievement levels on a school, grade, and district level, as the standards adopted by the State Board of Education are substantially similar to those of PEAKS. Materials from the State Board of Education meeting in Sitka on September 6-7, 2022, stated that “The proposed achievement level titles are designed to reflect a clear representation of student performance to educators and parents while also encouraging student engagement.” The changes seem likely motivated by the desire to adopt names that “incentivize student performance,” rather than represent significantly different expectations of what students should know.  

For the purposes of state and national reporting, the AK STAR proficiency levels should be similar to those of PEAKS, so drawing general comparisons on a school, district, or statewide level from 2017-2021 to 2022 and beyond will be possible. It will be particularly relevant to compare proficiency levels of pre-pandemic administrations of PEAKS (2017-2019) to future administrations of AK STAR to quantify the degree of learning loss students experienced. In addition, the 2021 PEAKS had abnormally low participation, which makes comparison to previous years and AK STAR much less useful. The results from the 2022 administration of AK STAR will be released to districts on October 24, 2022 and released publicly on November 10, 2022.  

AK STAR promises two things that parents and students should rejoice in: reduced testing time and better ability to intervene if a student is not making sufficient progress throughout the school year. The continuity between the PEAKS proficiency levels and AK STAR proficiency levels will allow parents and policymakers to continue holding schools accountable for educating children. Although some parents may be fatigued by another change in standardized tests, the switch to AK STAR should be worthwhile.