Northwest Evaluation Association To Enter State Assessment Market

Associate Editor

The Northwest Evaluation Association today announced plans to enter the high-profile and high-stakes state accountability testing market by launching a new “States Solutions” division.

Primarily known for its Measures of Academic Progress test—an interim assessment taken by students across the U.S.—the nonprofit NWEA is diving into the more turbulent, and potentially lucrative waters of summative assessments.

The goal of the new division is to support states in the development of “innovative accountability systems,” including proficiency assessment models, according to the NWEA’s official announcement. The organization said it recognizes that educators need insight into their students’ progress as it relates to grade-level expectations, and growth data.

Summative assessments, which have historically been the tests designed to measure student academic progress at the end of a school year or a course, account for a $1.2 billion market in the U.S., according to Barry Topol, the founder and managing partner of the Assessment Solutions Group, a company that consults with states on testing. Matt Chapman, NWEA’s CEO, said in a phone interview that “the market potential is very, very high” for that testing.

NWEA will be providing “comprehensive, coherent systems for accountability, but accountability in the context of school improvement and in the context of providing timely and actionable information so kids’ instruction and learning can be enhanced,” he said.

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in December “is a complete game-changer from our standpoint,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to provide more depth of learning,” and to reach more students as “ESSA not only permits, but encourages, in a world of multiple measures”—a term that refers to different ways of gauging student learning and school effectiveness, rather than a one-shot summative assessment.

The way NWEA sees it—when combined with other measures from the the ESSA framework—districts and states will get information that can help inform student learning paths, measure growth, and identify opportunities for school improvement, and a way to pursue equitable outcomes for all students.

NWEA’s entry into accountability testing translates into “another player in a tough space,” said Topol. “They’re going after that linkage between district and state assessments.” Topol said the MAP product gives NWEA “a lot of traction” at the district level because “districts like it.”

Scott Marion, the executive director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, agrees.

NWEA gets “a lot of people who like them” based on the reports of academic growth that arise from MAP results. But entering into the summative assessment world could threaten that popularity.

“Ever hear anybody say they love the end-of-year test from Pearson that accounts for [school] accountability?” Marion asked. “Everybody loves you when you’re giving them good news,” Marion said. “Not everybody loves you so much when it’s for accountability.”

Topol said “the penalties for failure on state tests are pretty high—much higher than the failure rate at the district level.”

Consulting With States on Assessments

NWEA plans to consult with states about how they will interpret assessment for accountability, said Chapman.

ESSA creates an “innovative assessment and accountability demonstration authority,” through which states can apply to the U.S. Department of Education for the right to experiment in those areas of testing, as well as assessments that gauge “mastery” and “proficiency,” as my colleague Sean Cavanagh reported for Market Brief.

But Chapman said his organization believes it can work with states without pursuing the innovative pilot work. “We believe we fit into the mainstream. That doesn’t mean we might not help introduce some innovative ideas and approaches,” he said.

MAP is a proprietary system for growth measures, but going to state assessments requires openness, said Marion. “We would anticipate MAP would be the core of growth measures,” said Chapman. Academic proficiency could be measured by items that are shared among states or perhaps purchased. “The degree of openness is going to vary a little bit by the measure that is being used,” Chapman said.

The computer-adaptive nature of the MAP test could mean that NWEA plans to compete by saying schools are already familiar with their testing platform, Topol said, and they could offer tests that are shorter than the 4-hour math and English-Language Arts tests currently offered by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which would be a primary competitor.

Taking the Nation’s Pulse on Assessments

Last month, a Gallup and NWEA poll revealed that parents, students, teachers, and administrators place greater value on classroom tests and formative assessments than they do on summative tests used for accountability.

As my colleague Catherine Gewertz wrote, the findings showed that multiple measures would be preferred to summative tests, and teachers said that they valued different kinds of assessments for different kinds of things.

Chapman said the study will be beneficial in its efforts to work with states. “If an assessment does not provide timely, actionable information to help a student learn, then the enthusiasm for that assessment on the part of students and parents just plummets,” he said.

In a comprehensive assessment system, there’s the opportunity to be timely, to be actionable…and to have useful data for instruction that comes out of an academic proficiency measure,” he said. That’s something that the study shows “will change attitudes about the accountability system.”

NWEA State Solutions Team

The new division is being led by Jason Mendenhall, who joined the NWEA as senior vice president of state solutions earlier this year. Other members of the team are Canda Mueller, the vice president of state solutions; who was most recently Questar Assessment’s vice president of assessment services; Karen Barton, the senior director of summative design, who came to NWEA from Discovery Education, and Chris Rozunick, director of summative content, who joined NWEA after a decade at Pearson. All were chosen for their summative assessment expertise, according to NWEA.

Chapman said NWEA also has a research department with 31 people in it already. Between MAP and Skills Navigator, which is a formative assessment tool, nearly 8 million students take NWEA tests in 7,800 U.S. schools, districts, and educational agencies.

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