I spent most of the day yesterday working with our fine Middle school head, Heather Faircloth, preparing the presentation above for last evening’s program about our use of MAP, the Measures of Academic Progress.  This is the tool we use for standardized testing, and which we are administering three times a year to our students in grades six, seven, and eight.

Often I write about our work to enrich our students with leadership and innovation education, our focus on higher order thinking skills, our advisory programs, project-based learning, and academic extracurriculars.  But we never forget that all of this stands upon the bedrock of a very serious and strong foundation of core academic skills, the skills assessed in the MAP testing.

Until very recently here, standardized testing was administered only one time a year, in a one-size-fits all, uniform, paper and pencil, bubble test, the results of which came only months later and which were promptly filed, with only a very little amount of attention given to them, and even at that, very few resources available to make a good use of the results.  As Mrs. Faircloth explained last night, and as you can see in the above,  our use of MAP is different in nearly every way from the previous practice.

MAP is administered three times a year with results received nearly immediately; over the course of nine test segments, it creates a motion picture of a student’s learning in progress, rather than a static snapshot once a year.  It is a computer-adaptive assessment, meaning it quickly conforms itself to the student’s individual learning level, and then gives a far closer and clearer view of that student’s individual proficiencies and areas of proximate growth, things which are unique to every students.

Perhaps the most important slide of the ones above, and I am pasting it in here below, is the one emphasizing the value of MAP in Assessment for Learning, Not Assessment of Learning.   These tests are not intended to be high stakes judgments of a student’s academic level or a school’s accomplishments; they aren’t supposed to sort students into categories, rewarding some and condemning others.  They don’t declare a student as passing (meeting), or failing, (failing to meet),  rigid external standards, standards that are too rigid and uniform in any case.   Ironically, one of the biggest problems in the “assessment of learning” is that the universal standards being assessed are set too low for high achieving students, and so result in what is actually a dumbing down of the curriculum, whereas MAP, with its assessment for learning approach, allows for standards which flex for individual students and promotes their own individual progress from whatever is their starting position.


We have several goals for our use of MAP:

  • Strengthen our Differentiation of Learning for each student,
  • Avoid the flaws of teaching to the test, and
  • Strengthen our school’s success at advancing student learning at above average rates of growth.

Strengthening our Differentiation: The MAP test differentiates itself for each student, stepping down for those students who are struggling in some areas, and stepping up, all the way to 12th grade levels, for students who are ready and able for those challenges.   More importantly, getting the reports three times a year, in real-time, with detailed analysis of student performance, allows us to identify outliers high and low and bring them the challenge and support they deserve.   Are we already doing this in every case?  No, not yet; but we now have, far more than we ever had before, the tools to assess students and shape these differentiated responses.   And by use of the accompanying DesCartes guide from NWEA MAP, we can locate the resources to know better what skills students are ready to tackle and apply to their learning needs.

Teachers, students and parents also receive from MAP, based on their assessed reading proficiency, a Lexile score, which can then be used to match students to their reading levels and developed customized reading lists.

We live in an age of increasing customization; technology allows us to drill deeper into our specific interests, needs, and preferences, and in learning, we have new techniques and tools to allow us to better support learning one student at a time.  A school like St. Gregory, with its small classes and excellent teachers, is well poised to take a lead and advance this approach, and MAP is a great resource for our doing so.

Avoiding the trap of Teaching to the Test.   Nobody wants classrooms which are relentlessly and exclusively focused on, even obsessed with, students performing well on standardized tests.   We want classrooms of experimentation, individuation, innovation, exploration, and exhilaration; test-cramming provides none of these things.    In using MAP, and paying attention to the results and student progress, we need to be careful about letting a focus on numbers distort the quality of our classroom environment.

But we think the MAP approach is better than others in several ways.  One, there are no high stakes, do or die, all or nothing, swim or sink outcomes in any given test administration, alleviating some of the pressure which could narrow classroom teaching.  Two, MAP is an iterative process: over the course of three years students get many opportunities to grow and perform, and we are viewing it as a process of growth, not a single destination of success.   Three, MAP is a different test for every student.  On a conventional bubble test, every student takes the same test, and teachers often quickly discern exactly what skills are being evaluated for every student in a particular grade level, and then sometimes restrict their teaching focus to those skills and those skills alone.  In MAP, there is no such opportunity for teachers, because their students are each working in different areas, some much higher and some much lower, and so instead we need to provide rich learning environments where every student is challenged and supported individually, not limited to the same narrow band of instruction.

Strengthening our Success in Fostering Above Average Student Growth:   MAP provides data to schools on student growth, compared to the norm groups,  and by reviewing these data we can see already that our students are improving more each trimester than the average student.   But we want to do better, and use these data to do even better by our students in their growth trajectories.  One caveat: in our efforts to beat the average growth, we do meet resistance in the form of the well-known “regression to the mean” problem.   Because our students are already performing well above average on their absolute scores, the RIT scores, in most cases thirty percentile points or more above the mean, and so they are already performing in the top fifth, it becomes that much harder to raise their performance further.  Imagine a Triple A team baseball player who decides his goal in a particular season is to raise his batting average from .305 to .320, and then is brought up to the majors where the competition is that much greater: it will be unrealistic that, now competing in that higher strata, he can improve his relative performance.   Being closer to the ceiling of achievement, it is that much harder to achieve higher than average growth.   But we are still going to try!

Student Motivation: One of the biggest issues we have encountered in administering the MAP, and an area where we are working hard to improve our performance, is in helping students understand the value of the MAP test-taking process, and motivating them to try their hardest.  We observed this most strongly in our second administration last winter, when many students, especially boys, were seen to “tank” the test, quitting early, hurrying through it, being blasé about it.  Their scores, then, reflected the same.   Ironically, this is the flip side to the test’s being not high stakes: because some students perceive they have no strong stake in success, not even a letter grade, some don’t bother.

Now we are stepping up on this front.  Before the fall administration, we spent an hour speaking with students to help them understand that trying their hardest helps us help them best.  We explained also that these scores are part of their middle school transcripts, if they apply to other schools, so there are some small stakes in this for them.

But we are doing more than hectoring :).   We are also embedding review of results in advisory, so students understand much better their own progress and the significance of the evaluation, and we are taking it further, having advisers working with students to set goals and review their progress.   We know that among the best ways we can serve student learning is if we enhance our students’ own meta-cognition about their own individual learning journeys, and we think we can use MAP for this purpose.

Student Goal Setting Using MAPs

􀁩 After testing or using Individual Student Reports have students write reflections for some of the following questions:

  • Were there any words or ideas that were unfamiliar to you when you were taking the test?
  •  Look at your highest goal area. Why do you think this is one of your strengths?
  •  How can this strength help you as you work on other goals?
  •  When you look at your scores do you notice any patterns or trends?
  •  Why do you think you scored higher or lower this time?
  •  Do your scores match what you know about your abilities in specific subject areas?
  •  What is your lowest goal area?
  •  Would this be a good goal for you this year, why or why not?
  •  Set personal goals based on this data.

􀁩 Consider some of the following prompts:

  •  My MAP score in reading reflects… (suggest prompts regarding effort, attitude, and knowledge of the subject area.)
  • This score surprises me because…
  • This score is on target because…
  • This score doesn’t seem quite right because…
  • This score encourages me because…
  • Based on my MAP scores in reading, I want to focus my efforts on… (what area?)
  • I think this would be a good focus area for me because…
  • My goal for the next (a certain period of time) is to grow by (a certain number of points or in the ability master specific learning skills)
  • I can work toward accomplishing this goal by…

Our Team’s Learning.   MAP offers tremendous potential and a great array of resources, but these are not not altogether immediate or intuitive.    We are investing resources into this initiative: last summer we sent Mrs. Faircloth to Portland OR for a week-long MAP training and conference, and in March we are hosting here at St. Gregory a regional MAP training seminar for teachers in using MAP results for improved differentiated instruction, and will have a number of our own teachers participate.