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The Nebraska Department of Education will consider a five-year, $29.2 million contract with a new company to offer the majority of statewide reading, math and science tests to the state’s third- through eighth-graders.

For the past seven years -- since the state began administering tests to gauge student proficiency in core subjects -- Nebraska has contracted with the Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp.

But recurring technical problems that plagued the state’s writing test in the past few years prompted state officials to abandon the writing test in the format DRC had been giving it, pare down the current year’s contract from $7.3 million to $4.3 million, and seek proposals from other companies.

State education officials decided to take advantage of the opportunity and issued a request for proposals that broadened the role of the testing company and changed the format of the questions.

Education officials wanted to begin using “adaptive” tests, in which the questions students are presented with are based on answers they've given to previous questions. Students who answer a question right will get one question, those who answer it incorrectly will get another.

“It was part of an overall vision to see if we could find out deeper information about students’ knowledge on state tests,” said Valorie Foy, state education assessment director.

The state also wanted the testing company to turn around test results more quickly, so teachers could make use of them.

The changes are part of a broader effort by the education department to create an accountability system for schools that relies on more than test scores -- including how students improve from year to year and strategies schools use in the classroom.

The department received proposals from six companies and chose the Oregon-based Northwest Evaluation Association to give reading, math and science tests to third- through eighth-graders. The contract for 2017-18 is $6.4 million and estimated at $5.67 million each of the next four years.

The Northwest proposal includes assessments schools can use to gauge student performance throughout the school year in addition to the statewide test, Foy said.

The statewide test is the one published so parents and lawmakers can gauge how schools are performing.

The company also will offer professional development to help teachers better use test results to improve classroom instruction and will make the results available soon after students take the tests, Foy said.

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However, department officials decided to recommend sticking with DRC to offer alternative assessments to the 1 percent of special needs students with profound disabilities. That five-year contract totals $6.7 million, including $1.6 million the first year.

The state board will vote on those contracts Friday, in addition to a $1.7 million contract with ACT to give the college preparatory exam to all 11th-graders for a second year.

In June, instead of giving the state writing test to juniors, the state board decided to begin using a college preparatory exam for high school juniors a year earlier than the state mandated in a new law.

The state contracted with ACT, and all the state’s juniors took the test for the first time last month. The college preparatory exam replaced the state reading, math and science tests, as well as writing. 

The board also decided against giving fourth- and eighth-graders the writing exam and instead changed the reading assessments -- now called English language arts assessments -- to include a writing component.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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