Computers allow an Idaho district to give ‘adaptive’ tests

An Idaho district has become one of the first in the nation to adopt a computerized testing system that allows for “adaptive testing” and actually measures academic growth from year to year.

Using a test created by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), Meridian School District is attempting to collect useful and timely information about students’ growth in specific subjects.

NWEA recently extended the power of paper-and-pencil achievement tests to the modern computing environment with its electronically administered Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests. Results from the computerized tests can measure academic growth for individual students, classrooms, schools, and districts.

According to NWEA spokeswoman Ellen Berg, the organization “started as a grass roots effort to change education through the better use of assessment data.” Today, it works with 25 states and more than 400 school districts nationwide.

NWEA does not do any type of advertising. “Our intent as an organization is to make a difference in public education. We just want to bring educators accurate data and encourage public accountability,” said Allan Olson, its president and executive director.

Meridian was very receptive to the values that NWEA brought to the table, he said.

“Meridian schools have always been very committed to change in how they deliver learning to children. Once they heard of our work, they decided that they wanted to bring about that change based on real data,” Olson said.

Three years ago, Meridian began using the paper-and-pencil Achievement Level Test in third through ninth grade. This year, the district adopted the computerized MAP test to test students in reading, math, language, and science.

“Adaptive tests build a customized test for each child as that child is being tested,” Olson said. “It is programmed to select each question based on the child’s answers to all prior questions.”

Meridian’s director of instruction, Linda Clark, is enthusiastic about the benefits of the twice-yearly MAP testing.

“There are three main benefits to [our] moving to the MAP test,” she said. “First, on the paper-and-pencil test we often had to administer a ‘locator’ test to determine where a student stood in a subject if [he or she was] new to the district. That function is already embedded in the MAP test. Also, if a test was too easy or too hard for a student, we had to do a re-test, but this automatically adjusts to [the student’s] level.

“The second benefit is that students respond really well to the questions. I saw no test anxiety at all,” Clark said. “Finally, this test gives us great data. It measures student growth and there is a quick turnaround. We usually administer a test during the first couple weeks of school, and this way teachers get results early in the year so they can use that data to guide instruction.”

Another benefit, according to Olson, is that teachers have input on these tests. “They can select questions from our bank of questions, and unlike tests [such as] the Stanford-9 or the Iowa Test of Basic Skills [ITBS], it is almost impossible to ‘teach to the test,'” he said.

“We’ve been doing level testing for three years now and we’re just sold on it. We are excited to move on to the next level with the MAP program,” said Clark. “Level testing helps us to operate from a basis of information, rather that just thinking ‘This is a good program.’ We now have actual measures of a program’s health, and we can make sure every kid is moving through the curriculum. It’s really about informed decision-making.”

According to Olson, Meridian helped beta-test the MAP system in May and June, then installed it for actual use over the summer.

In the 2000-01 school year, Meridian plans to use the MAP test in various subjects for students in grades three to 11. The district still will administer the ITBS and the Test of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP) in third, seventh, and 11th grades.

NWEA can build a test directly for an individual district, or it can deliver a test that has been specifically designed to fulfill the district’s state standards of learning, Olson said. The fee structure varies, depending on the type of test a district wants.

“The start-up fee involved if we design a custom test and train employees is usually around $12,000,” he said. “We estimate that the fee averages about $4.25 per student, per test, and we use that figure as a basis for establishing a fee. There are a lot of variables related to cost.”

“Financially, it is feasible. There is no up-front cost for test development, and the per-pupil cost is reasonable,” said Clark.

Training for administering the computerized test usually lasts just one day. “It is fairly simple, but we want to make sure people get it right,” Olson said.

According to Clark, Meridian uses a “train the trainer” model, in which NWEA trains a group of educators who go back to their campuses and train others. “It is really just a matter of showing teachers how to use the computer system and understand the administration of it, like uploading tests and giving reports,” she added.

Responses have been positive at Meridian, by all accounts.

“Reactions on the part of teachers, administrators, board members, and so forth have been overwhelmingly supportive. It’s the first time they have had useful data on children’s academic growth,” Olson said.

“Teachers and administrators can use this information to find out which programs are producing growth and which are not. They’ve never had that data before, and it creates a healthy discussion about program reform.”

Meridian Schools

Northwest Evaluation Association

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