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The Common Denominator in International Schools: How a standardized test just might be the most common characteristic international schools share

In February 2015, five months after having closed its physical campus due to health and safety concerns surrounding the Ebola outbreak of 2014, the American International School of Monrovia (AISM) in Liberia reopened its doors to students and families. During the extended closure, students had been able to study and coordinate virtually with their teachers and administrators, a testament to the resilience of the school community and leadership of the school’s director, Jeff Trudeau.

Reopening the physical campus after more than a semester of virtual study presented several significant challenges. Did all of the students keep up with their online assignments? What learning gaps were present? What would be the ideal instructional plan going forward for the remainder of the school year? “To understand what the students had learned during the first part of the 2014 school year, the first thing we did was administer a MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) Growth™; assessment,” Mr. Trudeau recalled. “This allowed us to see where each student was and to make sure we reached them where they were currently at.”

MAP Growth™ assessments are used in approximately 2000 international schools across 145 countries worldwide.
MAP Growth™ assessments are used in approximately 2000 international schools across 145 countries worldwide.

The ability for international schools to assess students’ academic progress and monitor growth with almost immediate feedback is one of the key tenets of the NWEA’s MAP Growth™ assessment. Although stories like what happened at AISM are unusual, international schools’ adoption and use of the MAP Growth™ Assessment are not. In fact, over a period of approximately 12 years, the NWEA MAP Growth™ assessment has seen wide-scale adoption throughout international schools and has become essentially the de facto testing tool in over 2000 international schools across 145 countries today. Given the wide variety of student demographics, school sizes, host country regulations, and educational philosophies in these schools, it is rather surprising that the MAP Growth™ assessment has emerged as perhaps one of the most prevalent common denominators in international schools. How, then, did NWEA become such a prominent player in international schools in only a little more than a decade?

NWEA was founded in 1977 in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and primarily focused its efforts on U.S. domestic schools and districts. In 1985, NWEA introduced a new type of computer-adaptive assessment that measured student growth called the MAP Growth™ assessment. Administered online, the assessment adapts based on content area: English language arts, math, science, etc. and difficulty level. This means the assessment is very individualized to each student to measure where a student is at regarding grade-level standards, how much progress they’ve made since the previous assessment, where they may need more focused instruction and what they are ready to learn. Each time the assessment is administered, a report on results is available almost immediately that provides a RIT score – short for Rausch Unit – which identifies a student’s instructional level independent of grade level. The RIT score is a universal data point that teachers use to identify student areas of strength and growth to inform instructional paths. This means a teacher in China has the same understanding of what a RIT score means as a teacher in Brazil, and that’s one of the draws of utilizing the MAP Growth™ assessment within the international education community.

Featured Left to Right: William (Bill) Scotti, Former Regional Educational Officer, U.S. State Department Office of Overseas Schools (2) Shoshana Blauer, NWEA Director, International Partners (3) Jeff Trudeau, Director American International School of Monrovia
Featured Left to Right: William (Bill) Scotti, Former Regional Educational Officer, U.S. State Department Office of Overseas Schools (2) Shoshana Blauer, NWEA Director, International Partners (3) Jeff Trudeau, Director American International School of Monrovia

According to William (Bill) Scotti, who retired in 2017 after serving 20 years as the Regional Educational Officer for the American Republics in the U.S. State Department Office of Overseas Schools, NWEA’s foray into international schools actually began due to a convergence of several auspicious factors. At the time, the Office of Overseas Schools had launched several “school-to-school” initiatives, pairing an international school with a U.S. based school or district. The hope was that through this collaboration, international schools would be able to receive guidance, support, and resources from their American counterparts, which would then in turn trickle down to American dependent children overseas. “The reality is that I had gotten in contact with a state senator from Nevada, William Raggio,” Dr. Scotti explained. “He really supported school-to-school partnerships and wanted one with Mexico, so we established a partnership there as well as another one in Ecuador.”

With support from both Senator Raggio and Dr. Scotti, a new partnership between the Carson City school district in Nevada and the American School of Puerto Vallarta (ASPV) in Mexico was formed. The school’s director at the time, Gerald Selitzer, shared that one of their initial conversations as a result of the newly formed partnership revolved around standardized testing. “We sat down and spoke to the Assistant Superintendent of the district about the standardized test they were using in the Carson City school district, and he spoke very highly of the MAP test,” Mr. Selitzer recalls. “He said it was tracking growth as opposed to some static number, and it was the first time we had ever really heard of it.” Supported by State Department funding, ASPV and several other schools in the region decided to adopt the exam on a trial basis. During the initial trial year, the Office of Overseas Schools paid for staff training as well as the subscription fees for access to the assessments.

Another important factor during this time period that drove international schools to seek a change in their testing resources was related to technology and efficiency. Both international school administrators and Office of Overseas staff were actively searching for more reliable, timely, and transferable student performance data that could be used for either internal school improvement efforts or easily compared across international schools. At the time, the standardized test of choice was the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), which was administered using pencil and paper and physically packaged and sent for scoring. Since the MAP Growth™ assessment was administered electronically, an international school’s adoption of the program meant a significant reduction in waiting time to receive student data, which overseas could take weeks, even months. With the intriguing idea of nearly immediate student data following an assessment, this paved the way for more and more schools to administer multiple assessments during a single school year to measure growth.

A snapshot of MAP Growth in the early years.
A snapshot of MAP Growth in the early years.

The State Department also had adequate reason to support the rapid adoption of the MAP Growth™ assessment in its supported schools. Because State Department employees often shuffle and rotate through different embassies and posts around the world, it was only natural for them to support a tool that would allow student academic performance and progress to be understood consistently across international schools. Part of the Office of Overseas Schools’ charge is to inform families of schooling options at post, and the MAP Growth™ assessment provided an objective tool that would not only allow for schools around the world to be compared, but also a valuable set of data that could be shared with schools Stateside for families’ eventual repatriation. “We supported them,” Dr. Scotti said. “We liked the idea of assessment, and we needed these assessment results to be transferable from ‘School A’ to ‘School B’. This was an assessment that gave us longitudinal growth and immediate feedback on students’ areas of need.”

Around the same time period, the MAP Growth™ assessment was also gaining traction in other parts of the world as well. Dan Hovland, who is currently in his 15th year at The American International School of Muscat (TASIM) in Oman, was one of the key players to help bring MAP Growth™ to the NESA (Near East South Asia) region. “I was a public school administrator in Minnesota prior to coming to Oman, and the district there decided to adopt the MAP test,” Mr. Hovland said. “It wasn’t overly well-received, mostly because I think people were just tired and we were working them a lot. But it was something I was interested in, and when I changed schools, my new school happened to have a big push forward in how they wanted to use data.” Mr. Hovland then approached the school’s director, Kevin Schafer, about the possibility of adopting the MAP Growth™ assessment and was put in contact with Ed Ladd, the director at the American School of Doha. “He [Ed] and I got into a conversation that went back and forth, and it really ignited the interest on both our parts to do something more with it,” Mr. Hovland said. “Ed and Kevin then contacted Dr. Beatrice (Bea) Cameron from the State Department, and she decided that this was a venture that she wanted to support.” Similar to Latin America, the State Department then contacted several schools in the region and facilitated training sessions with NWEA in preparation for a year-long trial period.

The initial trials of the MAP Growth™ test proved successful in both the NESA region as well as Latin America, and adoption of the assessment in international schools quickly accelerated. Shoshana Blauer, NWEA’s Director of International Partners, is quick to acknowledge the interest MAP Growth™ received not only from the State Department, but regional international school associations throughout the world, is what led to growth. “Our strong support from our international school associations has been due to our reliability, quality and continued focus on building long-term positive relationships in which we support each other,” Ms. Blauer said.

Dr. Gayle Frame facilitating MAP Growth professional learning in the Middle East.
Dr. Gayle Frame facilitating MAP Growth professional learning in the Middle East.

Today, a comprehensive set of tools and assessments offered through NWEA help educators, parents, and students understand their progress and inform goal setting. Recent partnerships with Khan Academy and the inclusion of the MAP Growth™  assessment in Spanish promise to further the assessment’s validity and address issues pertaining to equity. And, as NWEA continues to develop new services and assessments, schools around the world are continuing to find novel and innovative ways to utilize these data sets for both instructional improvement as well as efficiency. One such example is at the American School of Brasilia in Brazil, which adopted the MAP Reading Fluency assessment as their primary tool to identify student reading levels. “We piloted the new MAP® Reading Fluency™ assessment last year,” the school’s director, Allan Bredy, explained. “We had been using the Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) Reading Assessment but it took a great deal of teacher time. We added the MAP Reading Fluency test last year but continued with F&P to see how they compared. The comparison was spot on and we have switched to MAP now. This saves us days of teacher time.”

NWEA continues its expansion in the international school market, with its fastest growing regions being the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. The MAP Growth™ assessment has become widely recognized by school accreditors, and in the Middle East, MAP Growth™ has even become required for American-style schools by various oversight organizations. As the international school sector continues to expand, emphasis on programs, initiatives, and partnerships that will link and connect schools will likely also increase proportionally. With more than 1,000,000 tests taken by international students in the Fall of 2019, each successive test administration enhances the ever-growing and expansive data set, allowing educators and parents to access important academic student data with increased accuracy and efficiency.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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Wallace Ting
Dr. Wallace Ting is an experienced teacher, Principal, School Director, and University-level Researcher who has worked in Texas, New York City, Colombia, Guatemala, Nigeria, and Florida. He helped co-found SchoolRubric and serves in an advisory role for the non-profit organization. He currently resides in Orlando, Florida with his young son, Phillip.

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