New Meridian CEO Arthur VanderVeen sat down with Michael Horn, host of The Future of Education podcast, to discuss the next generation of assessment in U.S. schools. The conversation began with an observation.
“Assessments often become synonymous with an autopsy in our education system,” said Michael Horn, an author and education consultant. “It’s just basically a view of what the student did, but not an opportunity to improve their learning, which frankly is a shame.”
Horn went on to posit a system in which assessment would focus on learning, be conducted in real-time and bridge the gap between classroom testing and end-of-year assessment. “Assessments could be shorter, they could be more frequent, and they could be both for and of learning—break this trade-off between formative and summative by performing both.”
It was a familiar concept to VanderVeen because New Meridian is piloting something very similar in two different states.
“We currently have a single end-of-year snapshot of student learning, which reduces a student essentially to a single score, and that’s not in the spirit of student growth and learning,” said VanderVeen, who founded New Meridian in 2016.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could develop a model that is more instructionally valuable; more closely aligned to what’s taught in the classroom; delivered more data and information to teachers and students and families along the way; and in aggregate, try to build a technically valid summative score from those multiple assessments that provides a more holistic view of student learning throughout the year,” he said. “That’s the vision that we’re working on here at New Meridian.”
The Instructionally Aligned Assessment System
The pandemic is arguably the biggest disrupter of education in our lifetime, VanderVeen said, moving the focus of learning from schools to homes and putting technology at the center of education delivery. Recovery has given rise to more personalized learning models, which in turn have called into question how assessment systems can better serve students. “It has opened up space for real innovation,” he said.
“There’s more momentum now to get more utility out of state-level assessments than there ever has been in the past,” said VanderVeen, who has spent more than 25 years in education, including tours as both executive director for assessment and chief of innovation at the New York City Department of Education
In response, New Meridian began piloting the Instructionally Aligned Assessment System, which administers “testlets” throughout the year that are aligned to the taught curriculum. The testlets, which can be delivered in a single class period and yield real-time results, give teachers immediate feedback to adjust lessons. They can then be combined to form a single, year-end summative score that helps education leaders allocate resources.
“That’s a real goal for this whole design,” he said. “We want to have a single coherent system of assessments that both support instruction throughout the year and provide that summative score.”
The system is being piloted in Montana and Louisiana. Both states have won Competitive Grants for State Assessments, a program administered by the U.S. Department of Education, and philanthropic grants have helped to fund design and development. Work has begun on the multi-year pilot and excitement is high in the states.
“Montana schools will be better served through assessments that reflect true teaching and learning,” Montana Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said in a statement. “Classroom instruction is the focus, with less teacher time taken on assessment preparation. Montana is leading the way on reimagining the one-size-fits-all student assessments of the past.”
Tackling the Challenge of Alignment
Of course, there are many challenges that need to be addressed when rethinking assessment models. For example, one major advantage of the Instructionally Aligned Assessment System is that students will only be tested on what they are taught. However, aligning assessment to curriculum has traditionally been difficult because curricula are generally under district control. Even within a single state, they can vary substantially.
To address that, New Meridian is creating multiple tests to give districts flexibility. VanderVeen described it as “a collection of maybe 18 to 20 mini-assessments or micro-assessments that can be flexibly selected, sequenced, stacked, and administered throughout the year.”
“In Louisiana and in Montana, we’re working with selected districts for this first year who are using different curricula because we want to show that each district can select and sequence according to their instructional plan,” he said.
The approach has multiple advantages. It eliminates student frustration at being tested on material that was not taught. It also eliminates the incentive for teachers to simply drill on the skills contained in the test. It puts more power into the hands of students and teachers by creating modular micro-assessments that can be flexibly aligned to what’s being taught.
Michael Horn understood immediately. As he put it, “It’s incredibly exciting.”