Kevin: As the pandemic subsides and students return to in-person learning, 45% of families report that they would prefer to keep their children fully online if given the chance, and 22% say they would opt for a hybrid model. As online and hybrid approaches gain traction, how must our testing and assessment regimens evolve to keep up? Where do we have opportunities to improve testing in a digital environment, and how might digital assessments help us personalize instruction and tailor lesson plans to each individual student? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Dr. Malbert Smith to find out. Dr. Malbert Smith is the founder and CEO of MetaMetrics, a leader in student assessment. He's the co-creator of the Lexile Framework for Reading and the Quantile Framework for Mathematics, which are used to measure student performance in all 50 states and around the world. For more than 30 years, Dr. Smith has been at the forefront of K12 testing conversations. He is with us today to explore the state of assessment and how we need to change to meet the needs of tomorrow. Malbert, welcome to the show.
Dr. Smith: Thanks. It's great being with you, Kevin.
Kevin: So there's so much I want to talk about in terms of assessments and personalized learning. What led you to academics?
Dr. Smith: I don't know how much is in the DNA of my family history, but my grandparents, my parents, everyone was in education. And I always had a very strong interest in the psychology, the mental part, even of sports. And so, I've always been attracted to psychology. And then when I went to college, I went to Duke and had the fortunate pleasure of meeting some great people and having some great mentors, and that just led me into the psychology and the area of measurement.
Kevin: Well, let's talk about assessments. I've had a couple of guests on the show talk about the state of assessments, how we measure students' performance in schools. And, in fact, as we were in the middle of the pandemic as you know, many states suspended testing. There's this feeling that we'll go back, but many have said that this is a good time to recalibrate because our approach to testing hasn't always been fair for students or for schools.
Dr. Smith: We're at this kind of zeitgeist moment where I think we're rethinking a lot of things about education. If you look at the assessment history, really there weren't a lot of changes till 2000. Before No Child Left Behind, the world was dominated by norm-referenced tests. You would take a test either the SAT-9 or the California Achievement Test or the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. And those were norm-referenced tests. They were good at ranking people, but there really wasn't much you could do with the test score. And then the first big shift in the last 20 years was No Child Left Behind. And as you will recall, that was ushered in around 2001 under President Bush, and that really changed and states... The model was, can we get everybody to proficiency in reading and math? And so, before that, you know, assessments were given intermittently, maybe grades three, five, and eight. And after NCLB, we really started testing annually, starting grades three, and then one year in high school. And then the Common Core came along. And so, there was a shift there with the curriculums and what should we be teaching our students? And also, how should we be measuring them? And then more recently with the Every Student Succeeds Act, we've really shifted to more of a growth model, not just proficiency but our students growing. And I think that's the right shift.
I think we need to be focused on growth as opposed to proficiency. We want everyone to reach a certain level, but we also want them to grow. In some respects, we'd like proficiency to be the basement and grow above proficiency, right? But what's really been fascinating is to watch, in the last two years, how this pandemic has just... The landscape has shifted again. Most of the assessments associated with ESSA and No Child Left Behind have been end-of-year summative assessments. Well, we didn't test for a couple of years, right? The pandemic. And then when we did test, the parents and teachers don't get the scores back in a timely fashion, so how can you take action when you get the score back a year late? And so, what we're seeing is this confluence of a lot more interim assessments, and can these interim assessments or through test help replace or supplement the summative assessment?
Kevin: One thing I wanted to make sure we talked about is where you've made your name around the country through MetaMetrics, your company, and the Lexile Quantile way of dealing with assessments and measuring students and their growth. Lexile is related more to English and language arts. Quantile is mathematics. All 50 states and many countries around the world use it. So, I'm gonna ask you because it sounds so complicated, Lexile and Quantile, give us a primer on Lexile/Quantile explained.
Dr. Smith: Let me tell you a little bit why I created it, and I had a co-developer as well, Jack Stenner, who was involved in this. But I was teaching the measurement class at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. This is circa 1981, '82, and we're going through the test reliability and validity of different assessments. And what struck me then, Kevin, which still strikes me, if we're gonna take the time to give a test, the test score should be actionable. There should be something you can do with that information that you couldn't do before. You should be able to personalize instruction, whereas before, you couldn't do any of that.
And so, I'm a big believer in our country, is that there's an important role for assessment, but I also believe that we actually test too much in our country. We need to do more with the test we give. And I think we're at a point in time where we can't do more with the test we give. So, here's the quick Lexile 101. So, you can think about the Lexile Framework. You can bifurcate it and think about it from two perspectives. One is a measure of a student's reading ability. So how well does Kevin read? We give him a Lexile measure. He takes an assessment and he gets a Lexile measure that says, "Kevin reads at this Lexile level of 700." And then what we've done, which is the so what, we have connected that same measure to all of the textbooks, trade books, millions, billions of articles, and so now once I know your Lexile reading level and I know the grade you're in and I know what you're interested in, I can find you books that you're personally interested in at your reading level so that we optimize your growth.
You know as a basketball player, and what I've read about you, you were darn good. So what you know as a basketball player, you didn't start out when you got the first basketball. Maybe you didn't. Started shooting on a 10-foot goal. Typically, we start shooting on a shorter goal because we wanna work on the mechanics. Well, if we had started you on a 10-foot goal and you never had any success, you would have given up on basketball. And so, what we try to do is engineer that same kind of success when a child is reading a book. Where is that sweet spot where the student will be challenged enough that he'll be exposed to new vocabulary and new syntactic structures, but not so much of a leap that they get frustrated and give up? And we've done the same thing on the Quantile side. We measure students, get them a Quantile measure on their math ability, and then we've measured all of the math constructs, the Common Core, the state standards. And so, we have all those. And so, once I know your Quantile measure, I can connect you to instructional resources so you can personalize your instruction.
Kevin: And isn't it true? This is my view, Malbert. I really want your thoughts on this, that the goal is not a test score where so many parents get so caught up in but really to keep that innate curiosity for learning in a child continuous. And if a child is reading a book that they don't have the reading ability to grasp is frustrating. They give up on it, and this idea of meeting kids where they are, keep them excited about learning. I mean, people talk about this idea of personalized learning but isn't that the goal? We wanna keep the curiosity there and then we wanna figure out ways to tailor instruction to meet that curiosity.
Dr. Smith: That was perfectly said. Exactly. We want to inspire learners. You know, if you look at economists today, most are predicting that a high school graduate will shift careers, not just jobs, 7 to 10 times. And if you are not intellectually curious person, that's gonna be tough because you're not gonna continue to grow, and it's so important. Think what reading does for our personal life and think of all the things. And what I want to do and what we try to do at MetaMetrics is not to stifle but to instill confidence and to help a student grow to that next level because when students see themselves growing and then they're able to pursue their passion or career, it's so rewarding and that's what we want, is to pursue lifelong learning.
Kevin: How do you think that the sort of emergence of the online learning experience as part of the common education sort of approach, or one of the common approaches, how do you think that's gonna impact on assessments?
Dr. Smith: Well, I think it's gonna have a direct impact, and I think what we're gonna start seeing is we're going to be able to blur the distinction between assessment and instruction. We should be, as we're providing instruction, actually mining that experience for assessment data. And let me give a couple of examples. Gamification. When my son was growing up, he played every video game known to mankind. And what I noticed is he would start a game. He'd start at the lowest level, and he was interacting with the keyboard. And basically, what they were collecting on him were right and wrong responses. Now, he was oblivious to it. He's enjoying the process of learning this new game, and as he got better, the game got harder. He went to different levels and the levels kept getting...and he understood if I master this level, I'll get to go to the next level.
Kevin: And one of the other challenges, and I think, obviously, legitimate concerns about assessments the way they've been done historically is the cultural bias nature of it and the fact that, you know, in some households, they say that you may know the numbers but, you know, if you grow up in a house of poverty where there are no books, you know, and you're four years old, you may have a vocabulary of 2 million words less than those who grow up in a privileged household or something like that. And so, do you think that some of the changes that could take place would help ameliorate that cultural bias challenge, and how so?
Dr. Smith: It absolutely should. And the proof will be in the pudding. It needs to be done. I'll give you one kind of a humorous example that we really have to pay attention to the questions we ask. When I was in grad school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and I was getting my certification to be a school psychologist, you had to give so many tests. And the test that I had to give were the Stanford Binet intelligence test and the WISC intelligence test. And as you recall from being a grad student, typically, you test your professor's kids. And it's a little bit nervous because you wanna make sure they do well, but at the same time, you got to have a valid assessment.
So, I'm testing this 10-year-old boy whose father is on my doctoral committee. And one of the questions were name the four seasons of the year. Now, this was a bright kid, but I can't give him any hint. That would violate the standardization process, and he's struggling, and I'm just waiting. He says, "Well, I've got three of them but I'm having trouble with the fourth one." And I'm thinking, "What's the problem here?" And then he says, "Okay, I'll give it a shot. Basketball, football, baseball, and soccer." Well, that's a correct answer from my perspective. He was answering really a harder question than the four seasons of the year, you know, but I had to mark that incorrect. Now, you know, he's a bright kid but he didn't answer it according to the protocol. And I think sometimes we've penalized divergent thinkers, thinkers who come from a different background. When you ask a question of a second, third-grader, what did you do over vacation? And they've never had a vacation, their parents have never gone. You can't ask those kind of questions. They don't have the background. And so, I think we have to really be cognizant of the language we use and also the bias we impose when we create test items. And I worry about that.
Kevin: So, similar to your prognostication ability for Duke basketball, I'm gonna ask you to be a predictor. This is what I really want to know. Now that we're coming out of the pandemic, Malbert, do you think that the change in how we assess children will ultimately benefit students? And if so, how?
Dr. Smith: Well, I do. But I'm an eternal optimist, and I think all educators, we're eternal optimists, right? And we're trying to make a difference. But I believe we're at a tipping point and we're realizing that many of the things of the past, pre-pandemic, were fairly archaic. We wouldn't want our medical doctors to give us a test on our health and get the results six months later. We wouldn't tolerate that. Well, we've tolerated that in education and we don't have to. And I think what we're gonna find is that, first of all, the most important person in the assessment landscape is the teacher and the parent. Teachers looking at a student, interacting all the time, but I believe these interim assessments that are given on a much more regular basis can be given the results quickly, right? While we're talking, the results can come back is going to really... We'll look back and see this was a tipping point where life significantly changed in terms of assessment before the pandemic and after the pandemic.
Kevin: Malbert Smith, thank you so much for joining us on "What I Want to Know." It's been a pleasure.
Dr. Smith: Good to see you again, Kevin. Thanks.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Meet Dr. Smith
Dr. Malbert Smith is the founder and CEO of MetaMetrics, a leader in student assessment. He is the co-creator of the Lexile Framework for Reading and the Quantile Framework for Mathematics, which are used to measure student performance in all 50 states and around the world. For more than 30 years, Dr. Smith has been at the forefront of the K–12 testing conversation.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.