Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Acquires Assessment Provider NWEA, in Education Mega-Deal

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Education giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will acquire well-known K-12 assessment provider NWEA, in a pairing of two of the biggest and most influential companies in the nation’s schools.

NWEA will operate as a division of HMH, and its assessment solutions will be integrated with HMH curriculum — a move the companies hope will better link interim testing to instruction, they said in a statement.

NWEA is best known for its flagship formative assessment, MAP Growth, which is widely used in school districts and seeks to offer guidance to educators and school administrators trying to get a gauge on student academic progress.

Students take the test multiple times a year, and results often inform teachers’ day-to-day plans in the classroom..

NWEA is identified in most districts with the MAP test, an assessment given throughout the school year to gauge student progress.

The acquisition will allow HMH to turn insights from assessment results into content recommendations for teachers, the organization said.

The acquisition brings together the companies “at a time when the connection between instruction and assessment is increasingly critical for student success,” HMH CEO Jack Lynch said in a statement. He pointed to the critical role progress monitoring will play in addressing unfinished learning and supporting academic recovery.

“We’ve gone from serving three school districts 40 years ago to working with 10,000 school districts in 2022,” said NWEA CEO Chris Minnich in a statement.

“When considering the right path forward, we kept our school district and state education partners at the center… As part of HMH, we will be able to address their needs faster while staying focused on the deep, trusting relationships we have built with them.”

HMH is one of the biggest and best-known instructional materials providers in the country, and the resources it provides in curriculum and other areas have an enormous reach in school districts.

Over the past decade, the company has sought to shed its status as a publisher of printed resources and transform itself into a digital learning provider, capable of serving districts in a variety of formats. It estimates it serves more than 50 million students and 4 million educators in 150 countries.

Earlier this year, HMH announced it was leaving the public market and being acquired by private equity firm Veritas Capital for $2.8 billion cash.

Too Much Consolidation?

The acquisition is a “big deal” for the assessment field, said Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, especially considering NWEA’s presence in schools around the country.

“They’ve been a real force, no matter how you feel about them, in the assessment market for years now,” said Marion, who consults states on testing. “First solely on the interim side, now they’ve been really moving into the state summative side in a pretty aggressive way.”

More than a year ago, NWEA acquired assessment-related technology from the testing organization ETS. The deal also saw NWEA take over several state contracts from Questar Assessments, including New York, Georgia, Mississippi, and Missouri.

Merging with HMH enables NWEA to get into the curriculum market “without having to do it themselves,” Marion said.

It’s a model that already exists. One current example is Curriculum Associates, a curriculum provider that operates the i-Ready assessment under its umbrella.

While Marion said he likes the idea of assessment being closely integrated with instruction, he also has lingering concerns about how consolidation in general could impact the assessment space.

“It used to be if you put out an RFP for state assessment, you get five, six, 10 bidders,” he said. “Now you’re lucky to get three. When you’re doing that, there’s maybe not as much expertise and certainly the cost will go up.”

Meaningful Connections

Questions about whether major education companies have too much influence over curriculum and assessment have emerged in different states and districts in the past, and so it wouldn’t be surprising to see similar misgivings emerge over the pairing of HMH and NWEA, said Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

But for organizations in the market, there are major incentives to strike deals that will fill gaps in their portfolios and allow them to reach new K-12 audiences through various forms of assessment, he said.

He pointed to the accrediting organization AdvancED’s 2018 merger with assessment provider Measured Progress, a deal which resulted in the combined company changing its name to Cognia. Another large-scale union occurred a year later, when the American Institutes for Research sold off its assessment division to Cambium Learning.

It used to be if you put out an RFP for state assessment, you get five, six, 10 bidders. Now you’re lucky to get three.Scott Marion, Executive Director, Center for Assessment

The acquisition by HMH occurs as districts are scrambling to measure how much of a hit student learning has taken since the pandemic, and to craft instructional strategies to help their recovery.

In almost any district today, there’s a strong inclination to look for curriculum and assessment solutions that work hand in hand, rather than using programs that exist in isolation, said Cizek.

“In education today, everyone genuflects at the altar of alignment,” he said. District leaders see risks in hiring curriculum and assessment providers “that aren’t speaking to each other.”

Greg Bagby, the coordinator of instructional technology in the Hamilton County School District in Tennessee, said he finds the goal of aligning curriculum with assessment admirable. In fact, his district creates curriculum maps and guides to do just that, and seeks to make sure instructional resources are in sync with Tennessee state exams.

But Bagby, whose district uses HMH for some of its curriculum and a provider other than NWEA for assessment, said the crux of the issue is making sure that those instructional links are tied to not only state learning requirements, but to the district’s specific goals for improving student learning.

“Aligning [resources] would be great, but to what end?” Bagby said. There should be connections that go beyond simply aligning “the tests to meet the book,” in a way that benefits the two companies involved.

Execution is Critical

Adam Newman, a founding partner of Tyton Partners, a strategy consulting and investment banking firm in the education sector, said the deal presents opportunities in which both companies can benefit from what they offer each other. But, he said, “execution of the deal is going to be really critical.”

“This is an important and notable deal, and there will be a high degree of scrutiny on it in the coming months and beyond to see how it unfolds,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how these two parties put the pieces together.”

What it means for stakeholders, ranging from NWEA content partners to district customers, isn’t immediately clear yet, Newman said. And there could be some lingering questions moving forward, he said.

NWEA has been independent and divorced from curriculum, and now they’re going to be owned by an instructional provider, he said, which could give pause to NWEA’s content partners.

“There are risks with a deal like this, but it doesn’t mean they won’t be addressed,” Newman said. “It does bear watching.”

The acquisition agreement is expected to close after the typical 90-day regulatory review period. Details about cost were not released by either company.

Contributing Writer David Saleh Rauf contributed to this report.

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