The Hard Drive to Student Growth

An Idaho district discovers how computerized testing helps foster continuous student improvement by Linda Clark

For years, our school district relied on state-mandated standardized tests to assess student learning. Then it became obvious that although student achievement scores seemed impressive, we were not measuring real student growth.


For us, author E. M. Forster’s assessment of education (which first appeared in The Observer, a London newspaper, in 1951) coincided with our own traditional perspective of testing methods: “Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.”

Student scores on standardized tests don’t necessarily assess true academic growth. Rather, they gauge student progress by comparing students’ achievement with that of their peers. As a result, underachieving students’ test scores may indicate they are doing well when actually, because they are being compared to other underachievers, they may not be growing academically at all.

That’s why the 25,000-student Meridian, Idaho, School District has taken what some consider revolutionary steps during the past four years to ensure our testing process leads to more effective teaching, more substantive learning and more successful, confident students. We set out to answer the question: How can we tell if we’re fostering continuous improvement in each of our students?

Driving Decisions

Our first order of business was to implement a comprehensive districtwide assessment program that could produce the solid data we needed to develop and drive our school improvement plans.

We looked for an assessment program that was curriculum-based so we could test what was being taught. We wanted a program that would measure student growth toward meeting standards and provide us with reliable data that we could use to guide our instruction. We also wanted a way to ensure internal and external accountability and to clearly communicate student progress to educators, students, parents and the community.

The Northwest Evaluation Association’s paper-and-pencil achievement-level test met all of our established criteria. The pre-developed tests are built around nationally recognized standards in mathematics, reading and language arts and provide information about academic growth and student learning.

After enthusiastic buy-in from teachers who readily saw the advantage of assessment tied to the actual curriculum, we began with a spring pilot study of 6,000 students in grades 3–8 in reading, language arts and math and expanded the program by implementing the testing districtwide in grades 3–8 the following fall. During the next year, the assessment program expanded to include grades 3–8 science and high school end-of-course tests in reading, science and mathematics.

Meridian schools are using the data from the level tests to develop building improvement plans that are targeted to student achievement, and teachers are using the data to plan and evaluate their instruction. Data also provide parents with a clear indication of their child’s achievement in relationship to the district expectations and help them to monitor student growth over time.

Based on the quality and nature of the data we received through the level testing program, the district requested and was granted a testing waiver from the state board of education and the NWEA achievement-level testing program replaced the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in grades 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10.

“The experience with the paper-and-pencil level tests has been very positive,” says middle school mathematics teacher Theresa Tooman. “Our district, individual schools, teachers and parents now have access to data that are changing many aspects of education in our district.”

Personalizing Assessment

The paper-and-pencil testing presented a few minor problems, however. For example, we still needed a separate locator test to determine which level of test was appropriate for each child, and since the locator was not finely tuned to provide exact performance levels, retesting was sometimes necessary.

These concerns, which coincided with our need to revise the paper-and-pencil tests to reflect the district’s new standards-based curriculum, encouraged us to look to NWEA for a better solution.

In the spring of 2000, we became one of the first districts in the nation to adopt a computerized version of NWEA’s achievement-level tests for grades 3-12. Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, is an Internet-enabled testing system that removes grade-level barriers and measures individual growth in specific subjects.

Our initial focus was on mathematics and reading. Throughout the summer, we trained our staff in how to use MAP effectively (see related story). By fall, we began pilot testing the program in eight elementary schools. By the spring of 2001, MAP was fully implemented in all 22 elementary schools.

The keys to MAP’s effectiveness are its efficiency, flexibility and measurement precision. Prior to the testing, the administrator links to NWEA via the Internet to download student data from previous testing. The educator then can administer assessments customized to each student’s achievement level.

The assessment program automatically presents each student with test items based on his or her ability level and prior responses. When the student answers a question correctly, the difficulty level of subsequent questions increases. Conversely, incorrect answers lead to easier questions. Students are not tested on material they already have mastered nor are they tested on material far beyond their current capability.

Computer-based tools like calculators are available where appropriate, although features like spell checkers are disabled. Because the system works like a standard network, there is no need for an Internet connection during the actual testing.

Students actually look forward to taking these computer-based tests, partly because there are no stress-inducing time limits. The teacher generally ends the testing session when it is clear students are stuck and in need of additional instruction. Most tests can be completed in less than an hour.

In addition, according to NWEA president and executive director Allan Olson, “The MAP system eliminates student frustrations caused by too-difficult questions, as well as the boredom that occurs when questions are too easy.”

Solid, Timely Data

Two of the most significant benefits of the computer testing program are the timeliness of the data and the ability to monitor student progress.

When the testing session is complete, teachers can briefly review the student data before posting it back to NWEA through the Internet. NWEA aggregates the scores and generates reports showing individual student and group results. Teacher reports are available within hours; summary reports for parents and administrators that include district and user group norms are generally available in two days.

Because the process offers almost immediate turnaround on test scores and results, we obtain a reliable assessment of each student’s achievement level in less time than with traditional standardized tests. We can look at every student’s scores right away to see where they’re succeeding and where they’re falling behind and take appropriate action.

We no longer have to administer a locator test to new students to determine their competency in a certain subject as that is one function of the Measures of Academic Progress. Because MAP adjusts to a student’s academic ability level, retesting is a thing of the past.

Access to data disaggregated to the individual student level provides valuable information well beyond that offered by traditional testing programs. The level-test data monitors student growth specific to the curriculum and expectations set by the district. As such, teachers use the data to plan instruction for individual students as well as groups of students and for setting clear targets for improvement.

Level testing through NWEA is also less costly than traditional assessment. For our district, the ability to provide fall and spring testing for all students as well as intake testing and/or mid-term testing for one annual fee of about $4.50 per student is a cost- effective approach to testing.

Everyone’s Growth

Because the MAP testing system informs instruction at both the individual student and class levels, teachers use data gathered during fall testing to plan their instruction to foster growth in all students. We are gaining accurate data for 99 percent of our students—data that informs the development of individual education plans, classroom instruction, building improvement planning and district-level decision making.

We now can identify students who have already mastered grade-level knowledge, skills and understanding and move them to the next level of achievement. For example, at the beginning of the 1999 school year, 147 6th graders were identified from level-test data as having already mastered 6th-grade math. In the past, these students might have merely coasted through the year, proving their proficiency in 6th-grade math but not actually learning anything new.

Thanks to the MAP data and the flexibility of the program, however, we were able to advance these students into prealgebra and algebra and, this year, into geometry. It is a win-win situation for everyone: While average students are learning at grade level, more advanced children are being challenged.

After two years of testing with MAP, virtually everyone in the school system—from teachers to students to school board members—is sold on the process. The tests enable us to operate from a solid foundation of valid information and accurately measure how well we are meeting our goal of moving every child successfully through our curriculum.

One Meridian 5th grader’s assessment is truly gratifying. She said: “When my test score showed on the screen, I knew that I grew this year ’cause my teacher reminded me of the score I got when school started.”

The move to MAP and level testing has had a tremendous impact on all our students, regardless of whether they are in advanced math, remedial reading or special education classes and is a vital component of our comprehensive testing program. Portfolio and performance assessment and state-designed assessments work in tandem with the MAP and level testing to provide a total picture of student achievement and growth. ITBS/TAP have been eliminated, while the National Assessment of Educational Progress is administered on a random sample basis as part of the state testing system.

We have had nothing but positive feedback from parents who now are continually in the loop. They can see where their children stand in relation to the district’s expectations as well as their own, and can measure real growth year by year.

After a three-year assessment of our district’s testing program, independent evaluator Jerry Seidenwurm concluded: “No single aspect of the district’s improvement effort has met with the success of the level testing program. It was embraced by teachers from the outset, and subsequent visits at all sites have underscored its value to teachers and administrators.” His summation: “Clearly, the district now has quality student achievement data to use in its decision making.”

Linda Clark is director of instruction, Joint School District 2, 911 Meridian St., Meridian, ID 83642. E-mail: clarkl@meridianschools.org