What Real Assessment Flexibility Looks Like

Anyone following statewide summative assessment news has observed the trend of states leaving the consortia and returning to developing custom tests on their own. State policy makers want to ensure that state educators are involved in designing tests that align to their revised standards and reflect what is being taught in local classrooms.

That’s important, because relevance to the classroom and alignment among curriculum, instruction, and assessment is critical to ensuring students are learning and mastering what matters as they progress toward being ready for college and career.

Of course, custom development is expensive, and states spend ridiculously large sums of taxpayer money each year developing custom tests that are largely identical to their neighboring states’ tests.

As a parent and taxpayer, I have to wonder whether our approach to education and our expectations for student learning here in Texas are so different from those of our surrounding states. Is it so unthinkable that states — especially small and medium-sized states that can’t afford the high cost of custom development — could share some of the underlying test content as they design and develop their state-specific tests? It makes sense to me.

That’s why I started New Meridian two years ago — to provide a new way for states to share high-quality assessment content while maintaining their independence and the flexibility to design their own tests. As states either jointly or independently develop test content and share it through a secure, shared item pool, they realize the benefits of economies of scale, significantly reducing the cost and time required to develop a high-quality test.

As I’ve traveled the country in recent months introducing New Meridian to state education officials, I’ve found that public policymakers and assessment directors increasingly are interested in exploring what is possible through our innovative model of flexible assessment services.

First, we don’t offer a single test; rather we offer an expansive item bank, a repository of more than 10,000 high-quality performance tasks and test questions, all of which states themselves have produced, reviewed, and approved. This shift allows states to build their own tests, while greatly reducing the two greatest barriers to custom test design: cost and time.

While design options under this new model are virtually limitless (including licensing the PARCC test blueprint), most states will follow one of three general approaches in designing a custom test:

Custom Build

— States quickly develop custom assessments specifically tailored to state needs.

— Reduce development time and expense by using up to 100% of test items licensed from our shared bank to create their own tests.

— For the first time, states can produce an operationally ready, state-specific test in a matter of weeks.


— States select items from the shared bank to fill gaps in an existing state-specific test blueprint.

— The model allows states to access items essentially a la carte, with the assurance that each item is high-quality and field-tested.


— States anchor their assessments to our nationally validated College and Career Readiness Scale to monitor students’ progress toward well-established benchmarks like the ACT, SAT, and success in first-year college courses.

— Anchor sets allow significant custom design to align to state-specific learning objectives while maintaining scale and comparability to other participating states.

Flexibility begins with test design, but it extends to test administration. A key design component of our model is that content development and test design are decoupled from and managed independently of the administration vendor. This means that states have the flexibility – both technically and contractually – to swap out test vendors for administration, scoring, and reporting without disrupting their assessment programs. This is critical to maintaining longitudinal continuity for accountability systems and providing some welcome relief to educators in the field who have grown frustrated and weary with serial changes to the state’s assessment program with every change in administration.

This innovative new approach is truly unprecedented, and I am proud that we can support states’ transition back toward custom state assessments that better align to local needs while enabling them to maintain highest quality and lower costs.


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

A Focus on Reducing Barriers to Personalized Learning

In 1971, funded by a small grant from the University of Minnesota, a little-known researcher with an expertise in psychometrics began working on a groundbreaking system for measuring student learning. Powered by a mainframe computer, his test automatically adjusted the difficulty of test questions based on how previous questions were answered.

Professor David. J. Weiss could not have known it at the time, but nearly 50 years after his pioneering work began, adaptive tests would come to be viewed broadly as an important step in the evolution of student-centered learning.

Enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gave states broad new flexibility in the types of tests that can be used to satisfy the assessment requirement. And as a result, many states are rethinking systems of assessment and evaluating tests that can help educators meet students where they are in their progress toward mastery.

Adaptive assessments can provide a better testing experience because student motivation tends to increase when students are being tested at the appropriate level of difficulty.

“As the focus of instruction continues to shift from the teacher to the learner, a growing number of states and school districts are exploring ways to migrate away from fixed-form assessments to adaptive tests,” says Tracy Gardner, Chief Assessment Officer at New Meridian. “We’re focused on reducing the greatest barriers to personalized learning pathways.”

Chief among those barriers is cost.

To begin with, adaptive tests require both adaptive algorithms and an inordinate amount of psychometric expertise in item response theory (IRT). They also require a sophisticated test delivery platform.

But by far, the most prohibitive barrier is the expense required to build and maintain a suitable item bank. A high-quality 40-question adaptive test will select just the right next-question for a student drawn from a test item bank of more than 800 questions.

For the better part of a year, New Meridian has been working with states and education stakeholders to develop an adaptive test that can both meet students where they are and maintain the kind of rigor that differentiates high-quality assessments from inferior tests.

“High-quality adaptive tests have to preserve the task models, passage sets, and complex item types needed to measure critical thinking and problem solving,” says Gardner.

By meeting students where they are and returning scores more quickly, these assessments will provide educators with more valid measures of students’ learning and address a common critique: that scores are returned too late to be of instructional value.

New Meridian is helping states with the transition to adaptive testing in several ways: by providing states not only with psychometric and test-design expertise, but also with a cost-effective source for the high volume of needed high-quality test items required to build a functional adaptive state assessment system.

In Practice

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

Leveraging Technology, a Louisiana Parish Jumps to the Head of the Class

Beauregard Parish in southwest Louisiana is an unlikely stage for the future of learning.

It’s part of a stretch of land that was known regionally 200 years ago as “No Man’s Land” – a largely uninhabited buffer between Spanish-controlled Texas and the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Today, the Parish is still rural, its median income is well below the national average, and its 36,000 residents have unusually high rates of mobility, as a result of the transient nature of nearby Fort Polk Military Base.

Yet despite these challenges, Beauregard is attracting national interest because of its remarkable success in improving student outcomes. Nearly 95 percent of its students are graduating – the fourth-highest rate in Louisiana, according to state data.

Officials say much of the district’s success can be credited to a curriculum that is rooted in high standards and heavily supplemented by instructional technology.

“Our students have grown up with technology, they are pretty comfortable with it, and they are definitely interested in it,” says Dana Frusha Daughety, Instructional Computer Specialist for Beauregard Parish Schools, who credits technology platforms for boosting student engagement.

As in every state, a large part of Louisiana’s state and federal accountability ratings are determined by its end-of-year summative assessment.  The Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP), is a state-specific outgrowth of the PARCC assessment that is powered by New Meridian test items.

As part of a commitment to reducing end-of-year testing time, the state this year began offering Louisiana schools LEAP 360, a voluntary interim assessment system offered to schools at no cost. LEAP 360 allows Beauregard educators to measure growth toward proficiency and, in turn, focus instruction on areas where it is most needed.

“Because LEAP 360 is administered on the same platform as LEAP, students have a much higher level of familiarity and comfort when it comes time to take the end-of-year summative LEAP assessment,” adds Frusha Daughety.

Parish officials made a strategic decision several years ago to create a technology-rich environment, in large part, to address the challenges associated with student mobility.

“Once we identify an area of weakness, the first thing we do is convene a meeting between the teacher leader in the subject area and the principal. They dig into the data, and once they’ve identified a gap, they review the results with the classroom teacher,” explains Frusha Daughety. “If we find that a student is struggling with fractions, for example, we’ll review lesson plans and insert more bell work.”

Frusha Daughety says the data derived from formative and interim assessments are helping educators pinpoint problem areas in real time, and plug holes before it’s too late.

“After interim assessments are completed, we print off all the reports and we meet in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) a couple of times a quarter,” says Frusha Daughety of Beauregard Parish Schools. “The reports generated are broken down not just by questions but also by standards and by item-type. It will tell us, for example, if students are struggling with two-part questions. The level of detail is invaluable.”

Through a combination of focused leadership, technology-rich high-quality assessments, and site-based decision-making, Beauregard Parish schools are systematically beating the odds and delivering educational excellence.

Inside New Meridian

The 74 Profiles New Meridian

New Meridian last month was the subject of a news feature published by The 74. It provides a good explanation for why so many states are moving away from testing consortia, and why many are looking at New Meridian’s licensing model as a viable path to achieving a high-quality, state-specific assessment.

New Meridian’s assessment model represents a fundamental shift from the consortia model in that it shifts the multi-state collaborative focus away from a specific test (PARCC); instead, it focuses state resources on maintaining and expanding an expansive repository of high-quality test items (currently more than 10,000 items and growing). The New Meridian model was designed to dramatically reduce the greatest barrier to custom test design – the cost associated with producing high quality test items.

“This idea that a state could license content from an existing pool, a really high-quality pool, and create their custom test cheaper – more cost-effectively than what it would take for them to go through a two-year cycle to develop new content – that’s really immediately appealing,” Arthur VanderVeen, CEO of New Meridian is quoted as saying.

The 74 feature is available here.


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