Why achieving equity in education demands innovation

How does innovation break down classroom barriers to more equitable teaching practices? Meg Guerreiro, a research scientist with NWEA, partners with schools to develop assessments that not only reflect the way teachers really teach, but also the diversity of ways that students learn and process information. Her work is informed by her own experiences as a classroom teacher in Philadelphia.

Meg and I recently discussed the work she and her colleagues are doing at NWEA to make assessment more equitable for students, and why educational innovation needs to be an ongoing conversation between researchers and educators. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

First off, can you describe the scope of what you do at NWEA and your path to joining the organization?

I started my career as an elementary school teacher in Philadelphia where I taught in the very urban setting of North Philadelphia. In addition to the lack of resources common in urban schools, my students had additional barriers they faced in their young lives. Academically, many of my fourth-grade students were not able to read, struggled with basic math concepts, and consistently underperformed on state assessments. Non-academically, many ate all three meals at school and went home to families with adults who worked multiple jobs. Some of my students slept in cars, took on the role of an adult to younger siblings, and experienced other difficulties. My students worked incredibly hard to demonstrate their academic proficiency on their state assessments only to consistently underperform. The system failed to reflect the academic progress and proficiency I was seeing in the classroom. These experiences serve as the foundation for everything I do, including the lens with which I think about my current work, projects, and priorities, and they help me work to reimagine a new, more equitable assessment system.

After teaching in the classroom, I became a special education administrator before finishing a PhD and getting involved in research at NWEA. The work that I do at NWEA really bridges my experience as a teacher in urban education, my time working within special education, and my PhD in assessment and research. In this space, I work hard to create new ways that we can measure student understanding (academic and non-academic) as well as utilize new technology within the field of assessment with the foundational goal of leveraging the voices of students and teachers. This equity-based lens really brings in my experience from the classroom, both in students I served as well as considerations for other marginalized students such as students with disabilities, students who do not speak English as a first language, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students with cultural differences, and others.

Innovation is the key to removing barriers and exploring new pathways to better understand the whole child.

Most of my work lives in the innovative space, so research and development, and thinking about how we can really reshape, rethink, and reimagine the role of assessment. Not only how we assess, but also what we assess and how we support teachers to understand what students know and can do, both academically and non-academically.

How have you found innovation to be intertwined with the pursuit of equity?

I think about the role that I play within the assessment space and I think about the many barriers our kids face on a regular basis, whether it’s access to high-quality instruction, a healthy, nutritious meal, understanding the language, or a warm place to sleep at night. A big piece of that is really figuring out how to leverage innovations in a way that builds bridges. Thinking about how we can utilize technology, whether it’s a fancy, new type of technology (like augmented reality or eye gaze software) to really unlock those new areas of measurement and new points of data, or whether it’s smaller technological enhancements, like how we can collect and use data differently to learn new pieces of information about our kids’ academic skills.

Innovation is the key to removing barriers and exploring new pathways to better understand the whole child. With innovation, we can unlock additional pieces of data, create new assessment approaches, utilize improvement measurement models, and develop more equitable practices.

What are you working on right now?

My biggest projects are focusing on advancements in reading. As a former teacher who moved into the assessment industry, I started to think about how data is used in the classroom and how traditional reading assessments collect that same data. I very quickly noticed the disconnect in how we assess reading and how reading is assessed during classroom formative assessment.

Traditional approaches to reading assessment have students read multiple paragraphs of text and then ask questions at the end of the passage. I started to wonder whether that was truly measuring reading comprehension or if we were measuring other things like working memory, attention, anxiety, ability to seek and find, and all these other things that I don’t really think we want to measure. For example, the question “What does the word ‘harsh’ mean in paragraph two?” really does not require students to read eight paragraphs to answer. Or the question “What is the main idea of paragraph four?” Even as an advanced reader, I wouldn’t remember and I would have to scroll back to search and find paragraph four, reread it, then answer the question. This obviously adds time onto the assessment experience and, I would argue, contributes to possible student disengagement or presents additional barriers. This got me working on creating a new assessment approach that asks students questions at the point in the passage when they’ve just read the evidence. Through this, I also aim to explore the collection of new and richer data on student reading skills by possibly augmenting the MAP® Growth™ assessment RIT scale and adapting beyond item difficulty.

[P]art of my work is figuring out a way to remove barriers for teachers so they can practice the art of teaching based on the really great data we’re able to provide them.

Another project I’m working on is a collaboration with Steve Sireci and his group at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. We’re looking at developing a culturally responsive assessment. Right now, each student enters a test event with a unique set of background experiences, demographic characteristics, languages, abilities, etc., but we often ask them to leave that at the door to engage with a test event that is meant for a one-size-fits-all approach. We are looking at how can we rethink reliability within a test event but truly get the best measure for each student and allow for a test event that is more culturally responsive. The project with UMass is taking a step in that direction by implementing student agency in the content that students receive, as well as a student-created avatar to navigate kids through the test experience. It’s one piece of a larger project, which I hope to build out over time, that will implement approaches to be more culturally responsive through content selection, adapting in new ways, intro screens that provide introductory context to what a computer-adaptive assessment is, and exit screens for interpretation of score reporting.

Lastly, I am working on a project of putting pauses in place within a test event to provide students with a 30- to 60-second cognitive break. So, as students are completing a 40-item test, every eight items they might get a little bit of a break, see alpacas roaming on the screen or something like a night sky time lapse or a fly-over of a nature scene, just to kind of give them a mental stretch break. We hope to explore the impact of these breaks on both student engagement and achievement outcomes.

When these changes get to the schools, or when you’re working with groups of students, what are the biggest challenges in terms of implementation to making assessment more equitable?

There’s both an art and a science to teaching. We often ask teachers to wear both of those hats. I often heard the complaint from teachers (and I shared in this thinking) that there are so many barriers and so much paperwork to complete and, at the end of the day, they just wanted to teach. It’s what teachers are trained to do and why many go into the field. Teachers should be focusing on the art of teaching. The science should come from us leveraging that foundation from the data. So, part of my work is figuring out a way to remove barriers for teachers so they can practice the art of teaching based on the really great data we’re able to provide them. Let teachers do the art and let us do the science.

In my work, I think a lot about ways we can make the teachers’ lives easier while still being able to provide them with sound data that helps them do their job better. I am thinking about ways we may be able to leverage things like dynamic lesson plans that utilize short-cycle feedback within a lesson to gauge where students are. Then, those responses can prompt a shift in the lesson plan. The data can be used to place kids in small instructional groups for math and reading. Part of my work aims to figure out ways to utilize data in the moment within lessons to help teachers create those groups based on data. Then we can work with curriculum providers to provide actual instructional units for those groups.

But in terms of biggest challenges, a lot is what has been rooted in traditional approaches to assessment, the shift to more equity-focused practices within education, and reimagining outcome measures of assessment. At NWEA and within my work, I try hard to disrupt these standard approaches to education and assessment and think about ways we can better support students’ unique backgrounds, experiences, and approaches to learning and thinking, as well as thinking beyond academic measures. At the end of the day, we need to listen to teachers and students. They can help us figure out those next directions if we listen to what they find is working well, but also, and more importantly, to what’s not. We can then work together to figure out solutions. In that way, it truly is a partnership where we’re bringing ideas forward to them that we’re interested in exploring, but they are also helping to inform our future direction in research.

That’s an interesting way to think about it: that conditions are going to change for students and teachers might find a different way, so innovation has to be a continual dialogue and feedback loop.

I have been out of the classroom now for seven years, so it’s really easy for me to go down the wrong path based on old experiences, old policies and procedures, outdated curricula, etc. It’s really important for me to have a space in the classroom to not only be able to sit, watch, and learn but also to listen, engage in conversation, and uplift the voices of students and teachers with the mutual goal of working together to first understand the struggles and the areas of need and then partner together to reimagine current practices.

You said it’s been seven years since you were teaching in the classroom. How have you seen assessment become more accessible? How have you seen issues of equity and access be addressed? And what do you think still needs to happen?

I think it’s critical that we prioritize the work of people like my colleague Elizabeth Barker, who is working on accessibility and accommodations research; make efforts to understand Black and Hispanic student test engagement; and explore cultural responsiveness within our research and assessments to challenge traditional approaches. We have definitely made improvements, but there is a lot more room for growth and there are a lot more narratives needed to contribute to the conversation.

A lot of this work is really thinking beyond what we know, what we’re comfortable with, and thinking about what’s next. How can we reimagine assessment, better support students, remove barriers for our most vulnerable populations, and think about the next horizon of innovation?

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