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Posted on Sat, May 14, 2011 : 4:07 p.m.

NWEA test will benefit students, teachers in the Ann Arbor Public Schools

By Guest Column


Andy Thomas - Ann Arbor school board secretary

A recent article describing the Ann Arbor Public School District’s plan to purchase the NorthWest Evaluation Association’s student evaluation tool has sparked a number of comments. Many of these comments raised concerns over the wisdom of adding another standardized test at the elementary school level. I would like to address these concerns.

I understand that many parents will have as their initial reaction, “Oh no, not another standardized test.” I know parents have a strong visceral reaction to any test that tends to categorize their child according to their score. I understand that learning is about curiosity and developing the tools needed to satisfy that curiosity, not about taking standardized tests. Believe me, I get it. However, learning is also about providing teachers with timely, relevant data regarding their students, and the NWEA product will be of tremendous benefit in providing this data.

Currently, students in grades 3-8 take one set of standardized tests per year, the MEAP, which is given in late September. This test is mandated by the state and is used to assess districts and schools under the “No Child Left Behind” law. It is also used to assess the level of achievement for each child. The MEAP has a number of shortcomings that I will not go into, but chief among them is lack of timeliness. For example, I received my son’s MEAP scores only last week, a full eight months after he took the test. Since the test was administered in September, it really is a measure of what he learned the previous year. So the MEAP is essentially two years behind in measuring student performance - much too long a lag time to be of any practical use in addressing any deficiencies.

In contrast, the NWEA provides real-time student assessment. If a teacher administers a test on Monday, she will have the results on her computer on Tuesday. This means that teachers will be able to address problems immediately. Because the test can be given up to three times during a school year, it allows teachers to evaluate student progress throughout the year. And because the NWEA product allows for testing at the end of one school year as well as the beginning of the next year, it has the potential to quantify summer learning loss - a topic of much concern both locally and nationally.

Another major advantage of the NWEA product is that it permits learning assessment starting with kindergarten. There currently is no common assessment tool for K-2 students (the MEAP begins in the third grade). So the NWEA product will allow teachers to identify struggling students and provide appropriate interventions at a much earlier age. Giving the test to incoming kindergarten students will provide a base line to help identify those students who start school at a disadvantage, will facilitate interventions at the earliest possible time, and will allow teachers to assess student improvement relative to that baseline.

Yet another point is that the test is dynamically interactive, meaning that the level of difficulty adapts to the level of proficiency exhibited by the child taking the test. In other words, if a student taking the math test gets the first five answers correct, it will move to a higher level of difficulty (rather than making the student slog through another 20 or so similar problems). This allows the test to provide a much more accurate idea of where a particular student is performing, relative to the full spectrum of subject matter. For example, it might show that a student is fully proficient when it comes to performing mathematical operations (such as addition, subtraction, etc.) but just doesn’t get fractions. This is in contrast with the MEAP, which provides only an overall assessment of where a student is relative to grade level.

Although the NWEA can be used to assess teachers. I see this as being of secondary importance. The most important advantage is that it will provide objective, real-time student assessments at various points throughout the school year, and will help teachers provide appropriate support and interventions as needed. The ability to evaluate the impact of individual teachers on student performance is an important secondary benefit. However, teacher performance will continue to be based on a multitude of evaluative measures, with performance on standardized tests being only one.

Many people have a strong negative reaction to yet another standardized test. They object to the amount of time it takes to administer, and also to the tendency to “teach to the test”. I believe that both these concerns are overstated. As noted previously, this is not “another” test for K-2 students, as no test is currently in use for this age group. The amount of time it takes to administer the NWEA tests is pretty minimal - less than an hour per test (for the youngest students, as little as 20 minutes). And I would argue that the dynamic interactive nature of the test makes it much harder for an instructor to “teach to the test”. Finally, because tests are given multiple times throughout the year, the importance of a particular test given on a specific day is diminished.

In short, I strongly believe that the NWEA product will be an outstanding tool for teachers in our district. It will permit much more timely feedback regarding how well students are doing, will permit an assessment of student progress at various times throughout the year, and will allow teachers to make adjustments in student interventions according to what is and is not working. And by focusing on student progress within a given year, rather than comparing year-to-year performance based on a single data point, it will also provide a much more relevant and objective tool for evaluating teachers.

I hope parents, teachers and other community members will maintain an open mind regarding the NWEA product, and will take the time to learn more about how it can benefit students, teachers and the district as a whole.

Andy Thomas is the secretary on the Ann Arbor Board of Education. He may be reached at



Tue, May 17, 2011 : 2:59 a.m.

I was very surprised to see some charter schools are already using the new tests. Good for them! There were few comments about the benefit of seeing how much the test scores rise through the year. No mention if the scores will be made available to parents. I see the need to add discipline to the learning process- the children in my family(not mine) do not face consequences for missing homework. Let's see--the things that kids do not have to do today- spell- cursive and now homework.


Mon, May 16, 2011 : 2:30 p.m.

I'm horrified at the idea of testing kindergarten students. No child in kindergarten should be thought of or treated as "behind." There is a reason that MEAP testing does not start until 3rd grade. Until then, there is a huge variance of how quickly kids learn, and that is to be expected. This just panders to the parents who have a constant need for feedback and a constant need to judge their own children against their peers. Let your kids develop a little, let them be truly interested in learning for the joy of discovering new things, not for a number on an exam. I also think that teachers know exactly where each child is at and can plan accordingly. This incessant testing is nothing but a money-making proposition.


Tue, May 17, 2011 : 12:36 a.m.

CLX- Your "horrified" attitude could not possibly be more harmful to the potential for academic achievement of any kids you come in contact with. The "huge variance in how quickly kids learn" you cite doesn't go away in third grade unless the brightest kids have been repeatedly forced to slow down or endure boredom to let the rest "catch up" by the current refusal to group students by academic level instead of age.


Sun, May 15, 2011 : 11:23 p.m.

It will be interesting to see what happens to testing when Michigan changes over to the National CORE curriculum in the next couple of years. The CORE is somewhat different than our current state objectives. How will the new curriculum be assessed? Will there be a national test that replaces the MEAP? Many other states currently use the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) Will we need to assess both state and national objectives in separate tests? Who will be writing this, policy makers, teachers, parents? I would hope all these groups would be involved in these decisions.


Sun, May 15, 2011 : 9:39 p.m.

So if the MEAP is so useless and this test is better, are we talking about REPLACING the MEAP, or just adding another test?


Mon, May 16, 2011 : 12:38 p.m.

@a2person, @Felicia is correct in the fact that the MEAP is required by the state. However, the MEAP could be replaced, but will require a lot of push from the states' constituency to eliminate what really is a very poor standardized test. The biggest hurdles to it's removal are to first educate the public on the shortcomings of the MEAP, then educate state legislators on those shortcomings, and finally to offer a superior alternative to the MEAP that would still offer them and the NCLB folks the type of metrics they are looking for. So, it could be replaced, it's just a long hard road to do so. ;^)


Sun, May 15, 2011 : 11:27 p.m.

The MEAP is required by the state and cannot be replaced. The NWEA test is an additional assessment tool that most districts find beneficial.


Sun, May 15, 2011 : 7:31 p.m.

We use NWEA testing in our district. It is a much more valuable tool than the MEAP test. It is given at the beginning, middle and end of a school year, and is based on national norms as opposed to state standards. We get a truer picture of how our students compare with the rest of the country. Teachers are able to get immediate feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of students. It measures student growth over one academic year as opposed to the MEAP which is given in the fall for objectives from the previous school year. MEAP results are returned in the spring, which is useless for teachers to use as a tool showing growth in the year they are responsible for students. You really cant adjust in April to remediate what students needed help with from the previous year's objectives. With the NWEA students and teachers are able to set growth goals for the year and monitor how students are progressing toward those goals. It is much less time consuming than the MEAP, and is designed so that each student gets their own version of the test appropriate to their level of skill.


Sun, May 15, 2011 : 7:28 p.m.

Observations & comments from above: This instrument is an excellent tool for teacher self-evaluation. Please don't use weak administrators as an excuse - central office needs to do their job and get rid of the bad ones. Very thoughtful and well written article!

Midwestern Teacher

Sun, May 15, 2011 : 1:29 p.m.

&quot;Higher test scores may indicate lower quality teaching and learning.&quot; The tests are being used a tool to determine funding and teacher efficacy, something they were not designed to do. Assessments that were constructed to result in a bell curve will never result in a 100% constant. We already know the patterns of achievement on these kind of tests. The scores may be boosted, but the pattern will not change significantly. Ask why we are using these kind of tests when schools around the world who are more successful than us are not. There is a lot of money tied in to the purchase of the tests and the financial reward of doing well on the tests. I'd assume the greatest financial rewards are going to the creators of the tests and associated politicians. We've heard the promotional materials for the tests, now read some of the literature that includes research about testing: &quot;. . . [Of course it's possible to] succeed in raising average test scores. You deprive kids of recess, eliminate music and the arts, cut back the class meetings and discussions of current events, offer less time to read books for pleasure, squeeze out the field trips and interdisciplinary projects and high-quality electives, spend enough time teaching test-taking tricks, and, you bet, it's possible to raise the scores. But that result is meaningless at best. When a school or district reports better test results this year than last, knowledgeable parents and other observers respond by saying, "So what?" (because higher test scores do not necessarily reflect higher quality teaching and learning) – or even, "Uh-oh" (because higher test scores may indicate lower quality teaching and learning).&quot; &quot;Standardized Testing: Separating Wheat Children from Chaff Children" Alfie Kohn <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Sun, May 15, 2011 : 3:20 a.m.

I am a first grade teacher at a local charter school. This is our first year using the NWEA. I love how we get immediate results on our student's strengths and weaknesses. My own children are familiar with this test as well and they look forward to taking this test! It's a great test!


Sun, May 15, 2011 : 12:11 a.m.

I think it will be helpful. There are many children that slip through the cracks,and this can help catch them. Often, material is presented in public school but not enforced. I support this testing. Let's see how it goes.


Sat, May 14, 2011 : 11:29 p.m.

Interesting that a school board member doesn't even know when the MEAP is given. MEAP is given in mid-October and I assume schools had scores well before they were sent home to parents. If you want to know how your child is doing, get involved and go inquire from those that spend the day with them. I'll take the teachers perspective and assessment over a standardized test any day of the week.


Sat, May 14, 2011 : 9:11 p.m.

All NHA Charter Schools use this to evaluate their students. It is a very important tool for teachers in setting up a teaching plan for their classrooms and tracking each student's learning growth. I have two kids that go to a local charter school that uses this test and it has proven to be a very valuable resource to everyone involved in the learning process that includes Teachers, Parents and the Students. The MEAP is a once per year test. The NWEA is used at the start, middle and end of the school year to track progress of the individual student. As a parent I like the real time feedback, I can help correct a problem before it becomes a learning issue.


Sat, May 14, 2011 : 9:07 p.m.

To the extent that these tests will be used as part of teacher evaluations.... there is so much discussion about this lately. The truth is, everyone already knows who the sub-par teachers are. And I bet if you just ASKED the four groups -- the principal, the other teachers, the parents and the students -- to evaluate how they think a teacher is doing, those with poor ratings from all four groups (consensus) should probably go or receive major remediation. It's just not that complicated.


Sun, May 15, 2011 : 1:14 p.m.

Topher, I agree.


Sun, May 15, 2011 : 12:57 p.m.

I agree with you that there isn't a good metric/measure of assessment right now. You're right - if four people feel that there's something going on, it is definitely worth looking into. I think that's the key - there must be procedure for further inquiry. I do think this method could come up against some issues, especially with poor administration that either works under the illusion that all of their teachers are great, or has little to no sense of what goes on in their classrooms. This means there needs to be a shift in the way administration do their jobs.


Sat, May 14, 2011 : 11:49 p.m.

Oops -- sorry, I have two computers, forgot my sign-on name on one and used a different one, all confused! I'll have to pick a name for both computers.....


Sat, May 14, 2011 : 11:48 p.m.

Topher, I still contend that if all four groups reach consensus about a sub-par teacher, there is likely something real there. And I'm betting it's a more accurate judge of how well a teacher is doing than most any test-based metric.


Sat, May 14, 2011 : 11:17 p.m.

A2anon - You make a good point about a type of consensus, but we also can't forget that if an administrator doesn't know the teachers and rarely sets foot into his/her classroom, then what they think can be based purely on gossip and opinion. The same goes for parents. There are well-liked, hard working teachers who are bad at what they do. Also, let's not forget that many students have difficulty assessing the difference between what's &quot;fun&quot; versus what is beneficial to them. Sometimes something &quot;fun&quot; is not actually teaching students necessary skills or content.


Sat, May 14, 2011 : 9:02 p.m.

Hmmmm. I remain skeptical. The truth is, when I ask my kids' teachers about their strengths and weaknesses and struggles, they are always able to give me a great assessment of precisely where my children thrive and where they need extra help. They don't seem to need another test to be able to figure it out. I am extremely concerned about increased pressure to conform to a pre-boxed curriculum without any room for innovation or creativity or following the interests of the kids, and I think that this test, which is administered several times per YEAR, will really contribute to that. I want my kids' fabulous teachers to be able to do what they are already doing so well without worrying about timing everything to a test schedule. I think it moves us even further away from best practices, brain-based research that shows that project-based in-depth investigation is how children really learn well.... not vast amounts of content skimmed over to make sure it has been &quot;covered.&quot;