Charting a New Way Forward, Together

I am thrilled to introduce the inaugural edition of New Meridian’s monthly newsletter, The Prime. We’ve designed this publication to be a platform for exploring how states, districts and educators are using high quality assessments and data-informed instruction to improve student outcomes.

We chose this name because, just as the Prime Meridian itself is broadly accepted as a reliable and valid reference point for navigation, high-quality assessments enable students, families, and educators to set a course toward readiness for success in school, career and life.

Two years ago, the PARCC states announced they were embarking on a wholly new approach to assessment design and development: Building on the foundations of their work as a consortium, these states were making a hard pivot toward a bold new vision for flexible collaboration that preserved the benefits of shared content development — industry-leading quality, educator involvement, economies of scale — while allowing them the independence and flexibility they needed to design their own custom state tests.

As a lifelong entrepreneur, I find this new approach compelling: Every year, states spend millions of scarce education dollars developing new custom tests that assess what virtually every state agrees are the same skills needed to be prepared for college or a 21st century career. Our new approach gives states all the benefits of a custom test without the cost and time required for custom content development. States now have the flexibility to design their own test (including adaptive designs) and to work with their own test development and administration vendor while taking advantage of a shared pool of high-quality, secure test content. (They may also choose to license the PARCC test, or versions of it, which has been validated by research and peer review as the highest quality assessment design available on the market.)

This new flexible approach has been born out of years of refinement to the PARCC states’ working together and reflects their emerging understanding of states’ needs for both flexible custom design and efficient economies of scale. No one has done this before, but this approach promises to significantly disrupt the traditional state testing industry: States working together flexibly to develop and share high-quality test content contributed to a secure, central repository, which they can then license flexibly at much lower cost than they could develop individually. New Meridian is proud to support this work and to now make this shared content available to all states and their assessment vendors.

As we work with states that are innovating and developing new approaches to assessment and data-informed instruction, we will share insights from the field, promising practices, and informed commentary here in The Prime. I look forward to your joining us as we chart these new pathways together toward the future.

Thank you.


Examining how states and systems are rethinking education, assessments and accountability to improve student outcomes

Aided by Data, Illinois Charts a Bold Path Toward Equity

At 33, Lebron James is broadly considered the best basketball player in the world. Some regard him as the greatest of all time. What is striking, however, is that in his 16th season, he’s arguably playing his best basketball ever – something analysts say is a result of his legendary work ethic, his growth mindset, and commitment to continue to learn about his craft.

Last week, Illinois unveiled a new statewide, growth-based accountability system predicated on the belief that everyone – no matter their level of subject-matter proficiency – has room for improvement.

“We value growth – even growth of students in high achieving schools,” says Rae Clementz, Director of Assessment and Accountability at the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).

The new system is the product of a Herculean effort on the part of ISBE officials to solicit stakeholder engagement and incorporate public input as it worked to achieve compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a national education law that gave states wide, new flexibility in determining how to best prepare students for success after high school.

ISBE held over 100 listening and engagement sessions. It made three drafts of the plan publicly available while providing numerous opportunities for public comments. The result, say state officials, is a blueprint that reflects Illinois values.

“Equity is the frame through which we view all our work,” says Clementz. “Stakeholders wanted a system that was fair and non-punitive” while providing critical support needed to help students meet the state’s rigorous academic standards.

Illinois has 852 school districts. Only Texas and California have more. Due to historical funding formulas, disparities in funding across these districts are real. Some schools are operating at funding levels that are roughly half of what is considered adequate; others are funded at levels 200% above adequacy.

The end goal, say policymakers, is to create a more equitable system by accurately identifying the state’s lowest-performing schools, and then directing additional support toward them.

Beginning this year, the quality of Illinois schools will be measured through an array of indicators including English language proficiency, graduation rates, and factors such as chronic absenteeism. But the greatest emphasis – 50% – will be on academic growth; proficiency in math and ELA will account for 20% (reduced to 15% in the 2019-20 school year).

State officials say their ability to achieve success in closing the adequacy gap depends in large part on data-driven decision-making.

“When we couple evidence-based funding with academic need, we start to have a fantastic intersection,” says Clementz.

Focusing on growth year-over-year requires a consistent measure, so that the state can track improvements over time.

Illinois is also in the midst of a transition to a next-generation adaptive assessment – a change that will help further support growth. But the change will require the state to address the technical challenges of redesigning its assessment system while maintaining its historical trends.

To do that, ISBE’s recent RFP for the design of the new assessment required that new designs incorporate an anchor set of test items to link the new test back to historical results on the outgoing PARCC test.  New Meridian is providing technical support in selecting the anchor set from the expansive item bank of high-quality test items developed by the PARCC states and now managed by New Meridian.

“We’ve been fortunate to have the longitudinal data that we have,” adds Clementz, who notes that the ability to measure growth depends on establishing high-quality benchmarks. “As we think about making improvements to the assessments, it’s important that we maintain continuity.”

In Practice

A look at how educators are developing innovative strategies to use data to inform instruction in the classroom.

For One NM Teacher, High-Quality Assessments Have Been a Classroom Gamechanger

Samantha Nelson is the kind of teacher who sees the learning in every problem – not only for her students, but also for herself.

A few months ago, when the New Mexico Public Education Department released results of its annual K-12 standardized assessment, she was among the first of many teachers to request detailed data reports.

“As soon as I get the reports, I’m looking at them, analyzing them, and I begin thinking about how I’m going to adjust instruction,” she says. “It helps me.”

Esperanza Elementary is situated in central San Juan County, in the state’s northwest corner near the quadripoint where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet. More than 60 percent of the county’s geographic area is within Native American reservations. Esperanza is one of the most diverse public elementary schools in the state: 75 percent of Ms. Nelson’s 4th grade students come from low-income families; half are Hispanic; a third are Native American. Many are English Language Learners.

Given all the social, economic, and language challenges, Esperanza might seem an unlikely place to find an enthusiastic proponent of rigorous assessments. Yet Ms. Nelson doesn’t view summative assessments as punitive; instead she considers them an invaluable support resource.

“I need to know if something is not working,” says Ms. Nelson, who explains that the detailed reports help her pinpoint areas where she needs to change her approach to teaching. “The reports tell me where kids are learning by standards. If I see lack of proficiency in a specific area, for example, in reasoning ability, I immediately begin thinking about how I’m going to adjust instruction. It helps me guide my teaching and planning.”

New Mexico administers the PARCC assessment, one of several high-quality, summative assessments comprised of content drawn from an expansive, state-created test item bank managed by New Meridian.

Many of the arguments against so-called high-stakes testing are familiar to Ms. Nelson, although she doesn’t subscribe to them. “Assessments are a necessary component of education because if you don’t know where kids are at, you don’t know where to focus your efforts,” she insists.

But what about the notion that standardized tests create a perverse incentive for teachers to teach to the test, in effect making test scores more important than the process of learning?

“I don’t know what’s going to be on the test, so I teach to my standards,” says Ms. Nelson. “My district has gone through the process of unpacking the [New Mexico state academic] standards and breaking them down into topic skills. When I go beyond the surface and provide them with a deep content understanding, they will do well on any rigorous test because they fundamentally know the material.”

“My kids say, ‘This was really easy. You’ve asked us questions that are way harder than this’,” says Ms. Nelson, beaming with pride.

Esperanza Elementary last year placed in the top 30 percent of all schools in New Mexico for overall test scores. Students at Esperanza are making more academic progress from one grade to the next compared to their peers in other schools in the state.

Esperanza’s success is due to dedicated teachers like Ms. Nelson who set high standards for every student, and use high-quality assessment data to help them reach those standards.

Must Reads

In case you missed it, assessment-related news worth reading

Is going back to the drawing board on testing the right answer?