Got Evidence for Your Ed. Product? New Certification Invites Vendors to Prove It

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New certification program invites vendors to prove research, EdWeek Market Brief

A company that seeks to help districts evaluate the usefulness of the myriad ed-tech products in play in their classrooms will now give vendors in the market a new way to prove themselves to K-12 buyers.

LearnPlatform, which analyzes usage of tech products for districts and states, is this week launching a certification program for vendors to show they are backed by evidence, protecting student data privacy, and collecting enough usage data to build a research base.

The company is betting that vendors have a big incentive to pursue the certification, which is called IMPACT-Ready.

Companies will get a badge for certification that they can show to districts and reviewers of grants they apply for — audiences that are looking at whether company products have an evidence base behind them.

Districts are constantly being forced to sift through companies’ claims of “evidence” for products, without a clear playbook.

In addition, certified products will be highlighted and searchable in LearnPlatform’s database, which the company says is used in states and districts that serve a combined 7 million students.

“It’s a way for district and providers to have a shared fact base” of what products are backed by evidence, said Karl Rectanus, LearnPlatform’s CEO, in an interview.

Districts have long said they are “overwhelmed” with pitches from ed-tech providers and by often questionable claims of having evidence behind their products, Rectanus said. Having an objective way of judging those claims “would make life easier for them,” and that’s what LearnPlatform hopes to deliver.

To date, LearnPlatform’s main clients have been districts and states, who pay to have the company analyze their arrays of ed-tech products based on how often they’re used, their cost-effectiveness, and other criteria.

This is LearnPlatform’s first product aimed specifically at K-12 companies, said Rectanus.

The certification is specifically meant to allow vendors to show they have met the fourth, or most basic of four tiers of evidence set out under the parameters of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

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The highest, or first tier, is for programs with “strong evidence,” meaning that they’re backed by an experimental research design. The second and third tiers are for products showing moderate and promising evidence, respectively. The fourth tier is for a product that “demonstrates a rationale,” or has as well-defined logic model behind it, based on rigorous research.

Vendors who want LearnPlatform’s certification would pay an annual subscription, with different prices based on the size of the company.

As part of the certification process, LearnPlatform would analyze company data to help them build a tier 4 evidence base. The company would also have to show that its student data-privacy protections are sound, and that their usage data is robust enough to produce research on their product, said Rectanus.

LearnPlatform can also provide a deeper, third-party research analysis for companies if they want to meet ESSA’s more rigorous evidence standards, Rectanus said. Or vendors can simply use the initial data and analysis from the certification to pursue deeper, independent research on their own.

Many companies today are finding that their sales people “can’t get through the door” in school districts to make a pitch unless their products meet one of ESSA’s tiers of evidence, said Steven Ross, a professor and the director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research and Reform in Education.

“We have a lot of districts saying, ‘We want Tier 2,’ ” Ross said.

Predicting the impact of LearnPlatform’s certification is difficult, he said. But to the extent that the program puts companies on a path to establishing a strong evidence base — and creates more transparency around the research vendors have behind them –it could have a positive impact on the market, said Ross, whose center gets hired by education companies to conduct research on their products.

Having the imprimatur of evidence gives vendors an important talking point with districts, particularly if their business rivals can’t meet the same standard.

“The typical provider would be happy to get [some kind of certification], given the competitiveness of the market,” Ross said. A company that can generate evidence for the product, he added, is eager to “wave the banner.”

Protecting student-data privacy is a continued source of concern in many districts, particularly as the use of tech tools and platforms has soared in K-12 systems. As part of its certification process, LearnPlatform won’t be probing company practices independently, but will provide information from a variety of privacy sources districts say they trust, including the state-level policies, the Student Data Privacy Pledge, the IMS Trusted Apps ratings, and Common Sense Media guidelines, among others, Rectanus said in an email.

“Districts have told us that having the privacy documentation up-front is a HUGE time-saver,” he said, adding: “While we don’t make any statement on the agreements, LearnPlatform does provide visibility to other sources that district leaders have said they trust to make them make the decision.”

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