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The latest state test scores released Friday won’t be used to classify school and district performance because Nebraska education officials are taking a year to tweak a new accountability system.

Several changes are happening at once, said Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt, and allowing them to play out before reclassifying schools seems prudent.

For one thing, the state Department of Education is updating its math standards and creating a new English Language Arts assessment. The latter will assess not only reading skills but writing skills by asking students to write paragraphs analyzing what they’ve read.

Those new language arts assessments -- along with the ACT college entrance exam being given to all high school juniors -- will replace the state writing exam, which has been plagued with problems over the past few years.

State officials decided late Thursday not to release the 2016 writing scores because of possible problems with calculating the exam data.

Earlier problems occurred when the test was given. That didn't happen this year, but after some districts raised questions about the way the data was calculated, state officials decided to review it. Lincoln Public Schools officials were among those with questions, saying they couldn’t explain a significant drop in their scores.

Reading, math and science scores were released Friday.

In addition to changes in assessments, the state is working with the federal government to use its new system for federal reporting purposes. The new federal law that replaces No Child Left Behind allows schools to create their own accountability systems.

It makes sense, Blomstedt said, to be sure the U.S. Department of Education accepts the system before moving forward.

Nebraska was one of just a few states that didn’t apply for a waiver from No Child Left Behind's rigid student achievement benchmarks and is not bound by the sometimes equally rigid requirements of those waivers. That puts the state in a good position, Blomstedt said.

“This is really our time to define this and do it our way and not be forced into a corner by different elements of policy,” he said.

One of the hallmarks of the accountability system released a year ago was using factors beyond state test scores to gauge school performance.

Called Accountability for a Quality Education System, Today and Tomorrow, the system classified the state’s 1,130 schools and 245 districts into four levels: excellent, great, good and needs improvement.

It selected three so-called priority schools from the lowest tier and will work with them until they reach certain goals. Then new priority schools will be identified based on the classifications.

Test scores still are a major driver of those classifications, as are graduation rates. But the system also gives credit to schools where scores improve over three years and those where individual students improve from year to year.

The state also asked schools and districts to fill out a survey on various policies and practices shown to help improve student performance. Schools that used many of those practices could help them move to a higher classification.

State education officials want to better define how schools report those practices, and ask for evidence to show schools are using them. Some schools also want to be able to explain why they may have investigated but rejected certain practices.

Although the state Education Department won’t reclassify schools this year, it will release more information including how subgroups of students performed later this fall.

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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