Should State Assessments Be Split Up? Testmaker NWEA Thinks So

Oct 21, 2019

Last week, testing provider NWEA—best known for its district-level MAP Growth exams—came out with a bold new claim: The way states give summative assessments is broken. Its solution, however, was a bit more predictable: get states to switch to its own model, of course.

In lieu of administering a lengthy end-of-year high stakes test, the Portland, Ore.-based testmaker is now working with a pair of states to spread that testing out over three separate periods, which, not coincidentally, is the same way MAP Growth is administered.

As a condition of receiving federal funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act, each state is required to administer annual assessments in English language arts and math for grades three through eight, and at least once during grades nine through 12. States typically do this by creating large summative exams, and districts in turn block out a week or more at the end of the school year for the tests, which can take up to three hours per subject area.

“Much of the data from these assessments doesn’t come back until the next year,” explains Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA. “In many states, they're getting those scores in Sept. or Oct. It really just isn't possible for it to be useful.”

NWEA’s solution, which it calls “through-year assessments,” is to give students shorter exams lasting about 45 minutes per subject in the fall, winter and spring. Like the existing MAP Growth tests, which are used by about 9,500 districts nationwide to plot student growth, through-year summative exams would be given on computers and would be adaptive, meaning questions scale in difficulty as the test progresses based on how a student is performing. Results would be instantly available to schools and teachers.

Far from adding a new slate of exams to students, who Minnich believes are already overtested, NWEA is proposing something of a consolidation. Districts that currently use MAP Growth would no longer administer those exams. Instead, they would switch to state through-year exams and eliminate end-of-year testing.

“We should be using the data we’re collecting during the year to give back to parents at the end of the year about how their kids did,” Minnich says.

Testing It Out

So far, NWEA is in pilot talks with only two states, Nebraska and Georgia, the latter represented by a newly-formed consortium of nine districts called GMAP.

“We are districts that were already using MAP Growth, and we really like that, but it wasn't developed to pass federal peer review,” explains Michael Huneke, the director of assessment at Marietta City Schools, a GMAP member district. “We have 72 districts [statewide] that already use this product. If we could just do this alone, that would be great.”

GMAP districts are working with NWEA to map the new format to Georgia’s state standards. Next year, as part of the pilot, students in grades three through eight who attend GMAP districts will take both the NWEA through-year assessment in English and math and the end-of-year state test, called Georgia Milestones. But the following year—provided things go well—they will drop the state assessment altogether. (A plan is also underway to develop a through-year science exam for the state.)

According to Huneke, teachers and school officials like that students will get both a second and a third shot at mastering standards, and that teachers will be able to identify gaps in student knowledge sooner, while there’s still time to correct. “It will cause teachers to have to look at each student individually, and they will have to differentiate instruction,” he says.

In addition to working on its handful of pilots, NWEA is now making the pitch to other states. That’s actually something of a challenge, Minnich says, because the organization has limited contact with state education officials, given that it typically partners directly with districts for MAP Growth.

But districts can be enormously helpful in moving up the chain of command. “Our state education department colleagues are going to have to see this as something different and better, and we'll need the district leaders to help us get there,” he says.


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