Data-Based Change: Using Assessment Data to Improve Education
by Allan Olson, Northwest Evaluation Association
MultiMedia Schools May/June 2001
For the first time ever, a high school district in California with seriously low student reading scores has an assessment tool that gives teachers the information they need to change the curriculum for improved reading.

An urban school district in the Pacific Northwest witnessed a 4-year steady increase in student scores after it implemented assessments that showed growth and helped teachers act on the findings.

A fast-growing Midwest district uses a computerized adaptive test to place new students into the most appropriate learning situations the moment they arrive.

Tracking Growth
Each of these districts uses a new kind of assessment tool to track student performance and growth, developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) [], a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon.

NWEA took root in the 1970s when a few educators from Portland Public Schools proposed that a group of school districts in the Pacific Northwest collaborate to improve assessment. The group set out to develop challenging tests that aligned with the curriculum and that would provide timely, accurate information for each child. Gradually, their work led to a network of school districts committed to the role of improving assessment tools and the use of assessment data to help students.

The network incorporated as a nonprofit group in 1977, with NWEA educators and researchers working long hours to develop the tool they envisioned. The tests, originally developed in a paper and pencil form, were dubbed Achievement Level Tests, or ALTs.

The ALT provides information about student growth in learning over time, including detailed information on individual strengths and weaknesses that can help guide curriculum development. Because the tests provide high-quality quantifiable data, the group immediately began plans to develop a computerized version.

A technology-based test can adjust test difficulty based on a student's answers to more accurately represent student achievement. NWEA's early computerized tests, based on early desktop computers, provided an excellent screening and placement tool for schools, as well as enhancing the achievement level tests. NWEA considers these tests, now delivered over the Internet, to be the most powerful available in education today. Data from both tools help educators to improve teaching and learning.

Buoyed by these early successes, in 1990 the group began to spread the word and took the next step by hiring its first director. Now, more than 400 districts nationwide use our assessments, representing 1.5 million students. Forty staff members support their needs.

Been There, Done That
Two decades ago, "being accountable" in education meant using traditional standardized tests and hoping your students would register high percentile scores so you'd look good when the local newspaper listed the results. Unfortunately, regardless of how those scores are ranked, those tests hold little value for guiding improvement. [Editor's Note: The Thornburg Center's David Thornburg holds some strong opinions on the value of standardized testing as well. See his guest editorial in this month's "DirectConnect" column on page 6.]

Most standardized tests are a measure of accountability that accurately test the average student, but don't accurately measure below-average or high-achieving students. Coupled with the growing dependence on test results for high-stakes decision making, educators today are desperate for good data.

For example, East Side Union High School District in San Jose, California, commonly had student reading scores in the 10th to 20th percentile but, according to Dan Ordaz, assistant superintendent of instructional services, the test findings offered little or no guidance as to how the results could improve. About one-third of the district's 24,000 students in the 10 high schools and four alternative schools are considered "at risk," adding to the instructional challenge.

After a national search for a test that could provide the data it needed, the district implemented NWEA's Internet-delivered reading assessments. With these measures, said Ordaz, the teachers can readily equate student scores with individual strengths and weaknesses. Armed with that information, they've developed special tutoring programs at every school to meet the specific needs of their students. Hundreds of districts across the nation are using the tests for similar purposes.

More Effective Measures
All test items in NWEA's assessments are linked to the Rasch Unit or RIT scale. This is an equal-interval growth scale that accurately gauges academic growth--like a ruler measures height. (Traditional standardized tests don't report individual student growth. They "measure" by simply comparing a child to his peers. This doesn't tell us anything about whether the child grew or by how much. Neither does it tell us what caused the growth. It only tells us where he stands in relationship to the others.)

Using the RIT scale, it is possible to create tests with different items that measure the same levels of achievement. Our Internet-enabled tests take advantage of that feature and offer a unique test for each student, at each test-taking session.

As East Side Union High School District and others use these tests to collect student growth data, faculty are able to view the data in a variety of ways. As shown in figures 1 and 2, and in the sidebar "RIT-Based Computation Skills," educators can review an individual's growth by subject compared to others (Figure 1), see whether the highest- or lowest-achieving students are growing more (Figure 2), or obtain a detailed breakout of a student's scores by specific skills and concepts (sidebar).

The data also enables educators to compare actual student growth to district norms and targets. Educators can use NWEA tests as an internal measure of growth to guide individual student progress and to measure instructional effectiveness within the classroom, as well as providing external accountability.

Dave Clendening, principal of Goshen Middle School in Goshen, Indiana, said NWEA's testing has helped them provide the proper level of teaching for advanced and special-education students. He used the data, for instance, to pinpoint a group of students extremely gifted in math and was able to raise the bar, advancing the students to pre-calculus studies.

"In the past, when you looked at a norm reference test you could . . . kind of ballpark where they were," said Clendening. "With the NWEA tests, we've really been able to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses, and we've been able to accelerate a few kids."

The data shows all stakeholders how much a student has grown compared to his/herself as well as how much he/
she has grown compared to others. When we can see individual growth data, we can evaluate an individual's performance across school terms and years of education. We also can analyze what factors help foster growth (i.e., amount of instructional time, teacher preparation, or program characteristics) to help determine program changes that make a real difference.

The New Frontier: Internet-Delivered Testing
Guided by an internal mandate for continuous improvement, NWEA has enhanced its computerized test to take full advantage of the latest technology. Currently, the organization offers Internet-delivered tests, making it easier for districts to implement school or district-wide computerized testing. More than 70 districts, representing more than 300,000 students, began using these tests when the tests were first launched in the fall of 2000.

Known as Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), these math, reading, language usage, and science tests present each new question based on the child's answer to all prior questions. The tests eliminate the need for a locator test, as is needed with the ALT. In addition, the tests can be built specifically for a particular district, or NWEA can deliver a test that was pre-designed to meet the state's standards.

The MAP is friendlier to students, according to Jim Tilghman, principal of Wayne Center Elementary in Kendallville, Indiana. He recalls many instances of younger students struggling with test booklets and marking answer sheets. "A kid will bring up a test with 40 questions and he's got 39 answers," said Tilghman. "He missed something someplace, but he doesn't know where. If they use a computer they get one test, one question at a time."

Another advantage of the MAP is that student results are available for viewing immediately after students finish the test. Results are then sent via the Internet to NWEA, where the information is compiled into a variety of reports (such as those shown in the figures and sidebar referred to above) for students, parents, teachers, administrators, and others.

Looking Ahead
We're in a climate in which test results are increasingly scrutinized, and demands for accountability are coming from every level--the school district, the state, and most recently, from President Bush. Conventional tests are inadequate for measuring growth, yet school districts are using data from those tests as a basis for graduation requirements, performance-based pay schedules, school accreditation, financial rewards, student retention, and program evaluation. Unfortunately many are still using these inadequate measures in critical roles despite the fact that technology and educational researchers know they are not appropriate.

NWEA's driving tenets throughout its assessment history have remained the same, even as we've incorporated technology to make assessments easier to administer and interpret. Our goal is to develop and implement accurate tests that are aligned with state and district content standards and goals, and that are fair and challenging to each child.

Assessment tools must be able to monitor growth in academic achievement over time; able to report results on a common measurement scale (across time, years, and grades) and provide timely and useful results for children, parents, and teachers. Only those types of assessments will meet our dual goals of keeping schools accountable and helping all students learn.

Allan Olson is a co-founder and executive director of the Northwest Evaluation Association. Communications to the author may be addressed to

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