The “Nation’s Report Card” Is Getting a Digital Upgrade. Vendors Are Being Asked to Help

Staff Writer
Innovation in ESSA Testing, Lightbulb

As the National Center for Education Statistics works to implement a new digital approach to its flagship assessment program, known as the “nation’s report card,” it’s seeking new vendors to help put its plan into action.

Dan McGrath, acting associate commissioner for assessments at NCES, said the center is looking to cast a wide net during the upcoming procurement process and bring in new partners that can help inject recent tech innovations into the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which was established more than a half-century ago.

The statistics agency, which administers the NAEP, is currently working on efforts to make the assessment device-agnostic. That means it could be delivered on district devices, instead of the NAEP devices that are currently used, if districts have the capability.

“[Being device-agnostic] is going to reduce our costs, and hopefully make for a better experience for the students,” McGrath said. Efforts to expand the pool of companies with expertise are “a central part of that. We’re looking for contractors with great ideas about how we move forward in that direction.”

The agency hosted a virtual industry day late last month as part of its effort to expand its contractor pool for NAEP and prep vendors to bid on the request for proposal it expects to issue this winter.

Close to 200 organizations attended the day, he said. The agenda included an overview of the NAEP program, how the test is managed, and what type of products and services federal officials are seeking to bring on as the program enters a new era.

Seeking New Data-Science Strategies, and AI

One important factor potential vendors should keep in mind, McGrath said, is that any technology NCES implements should be compatible with the vast majority of devices used in districts today in order to help further its device-agnostic goal.

The center is also looking for innovations that could help it send fewer staff into the field to administer the assessment as it pursues that goal.

“We’re a long way from being able to avoid having any of our own devices in the field,” he said. For the foreseeable future, districts are “going to need us to bring devices. We’re looking for creative ways to reduce the cost of that.”

The agency is also seeking companies that are using artificial intelligence to generate content, an approach that could help the center develop content for the assessments and potentially score student responses, as well as to analyze processes in the assessment, such as click patterns and keystrokes.

“There’s a lot of really rich information in that data, and it’s prime for artificial intelligence or other data-science methods for providing the data, and learning more about how students learn and solve problems,” he said.

In addition, the rise of adaptive learning is spurring the center to explore technologies that could help make the assessment more personalized to each student as well. 

Another area of interest where NCES is looking for vendor support is in developing ways to better measure students’ socioeconomic status. Collecting that information that has become increasingly challenging because alternative measures, such as the portion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, has become less accurate based on national expansions of the free lunch program.

If companies working in assessment and other areas are looking to learn more about the center’s efforts and the upcoming RFP, they can access materials from the vendor day on the federal procurement site SAM. Organizations should also feel free to reach out to NCES’ contracting officers to directly to set up a meeting.

After the RFP is issued, likely around January, contracts would be awarded in roughly November 2024.

“Now is really the time to get started because we’ll be putting out these final solicitation documents within a few months,” McGrath said, “and then it will take quite a while to review all of the dates and to go back and forth with bidders and negotiation.”

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