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New WAPS test helps teachers teach (03/25/2013)
By Sarah Squires

In order to improve student achievement and ensure all children are learning what they need to know to excel in school and beyond, experts know it is imperative that teachers are able to evaluate what students have learned, and what they have not. In what areas are students struggling? What have they already mastered? That data on every child must be available, and accessible to teachers more than just once per year after standardized testing in the spring.

Enter the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) testing program. Newly-adopted at the Winona middle and high schools, the tests allow teachers access to detailed information about individual student achievement—the kind of data needed to address specific learning needs.

The NWEA tests are not like the typical standardized tests in which students in each grade are asked the same questions. Instead, the assessment is adaptive, responding when a student struggles in a certain area to better gauge what concepts have yet to be learned. For example, if a fourth grade student begins the test and gets an answer wrong, the online exam will give the student an easier question next. Depending on whether the student answers the question right or wrong, the test will continue to adapt the questions in order to provide teachers with information about which content areas the student understands, and which he doesn't.

"It really helps us identify students who might be struggling," said Winona Middle School principal Mark Anderson.

Anderson said the test data is available immediately after a student has finished taking the assessment, unlike the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) in which detailed scores are often not available for months—and after the school year is over. The NWEA tests reading and math, and students complete the test in the fall, winter, and spring. Not only does the NWEA program show teachers student achievement data, it also provides children with information about what they need to learn next to improve their scores. Anderson said the kids are really excited about the improvements already made this year, setting goals and charting their successes. "They're starting to get the idea that it matters," he said. "It's like a ladder, and I think it is more meaningful because we are empowering kids to walk up that ladder."

The fall and winter scores, along with goals for the spring test, are displayed on poster boards at the middle school, which Anderson said has been sparking conversation among students who would like to see the numbers continue to climb. Each child tracks his own scores through the year, keeping track of individual goals, too. To sweeten the deal, Anderson has routinely offered to do something that will keep the students motivated. Last year, he kissed a goat. This year, if the scores keep climbing, he will spend some time atop the middle school roof, at the request of the student body.

Anderson presented NWEA test data to school board members last month, which showed progress in scores between fall and winter tests. Additionally, the average middle school scores show that as a whole, the grades are on track with progress that indicates the students will do well on the MCAs in the spring (see chart).

Teachers will still need additional training to learn how to better use the NWEA test data, and over time, the district will be able to track how NWEA scores line up with MCAs as a predictor of how students will perform on the required state assessments.

Another factor is expected to help student performance on the MCA tests in the spring. Wireless internet access has allowed MCA tests to be completed on laptops in the classroom, rather than having each class take turns using the computer lab in the media center. Using only the media center computers meant that MCA testing took eight weeks, requiring the tests to begin the last week of March. With the use of the wireless connections and other computers, the tests can now be taken the last week of April, providing for three or four weeks of additional instruction prior to that time. Anderson said that will be helpful time, used to ensure that students are ready for the test.

"We're really excited to see where we'll be and what [our test data shows]," said Anderson.

Anderson told the board that the middle school students are also reading more this year than in the past, and the school is offering more varieties and genres of reading material. He said his son did not read any books last year, but so far this year, he's read 14 and loves it. "Kids are reading more books than they ever have," he said. 


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