Innovator Interview Series: Teacher-Led Assessment with NWEA’s Chase Nordengren

Welcome back to our interview series, where we ask innovators working in education to share their insights on the future of teaching and learning. Today we're talking with Chase Nordengren, a research scientist with NWEA, where he directs qualitative and mixed methods research at the intersection of assessment, curriculum and instruction. (He's also on the Partners of Innovation research team that visits schools to observe, talk with students and teachers, and solicit valuable feedback about instruction and assessment.)

What drew you toward a career in research in assessment?

The ideas I’ve been interested in throughout my career all come back to how best to empower teachers to build their knowledge and skills in support of learning for all students.

My work in graduate school focused on informal teacher leadership: how effective teachers encourage, collaborate with, and otherwise support the work of colleagues. One thing I found was that leaders are adept users of the tools of the education trade, particularly assessments: teacher leaders used regular formative and interim assessments to track the progress of their kids, and evangelized the importance of assessments and their related tools to colleagues.

My work at NWEA has allowed me to approach the same questions from a different angle: how assessments can be designed and supported to encourage consistent, sophisticated uses of data to support student learning.   

What’s the single biggest change in K–12 education that you’ve seen in the last 10 years?

I believe we are witnessing a fundamental shift in the role of the teacher, from teacher as instructor to teacher as director of learning. This shift is driven by two main factors: an increasing consensus in the field around the importance of differentiated and personalized learning plans for each and every student, and the flourishing of tools that let kids learn in many different ways, individually and in groups. Many of the best teachers now recognize that their role is no longer as “sage on the stage” but as the expert in learning, matching individual students to the materials and activities that are best for them.

This change is essential to bringing about truly individual learning, and like any change, can be incredibly energizing. Change, however, can also be alienating and scary. Much of my work focuses on understanding this shift, and its impact on teaching.

What does “personalized learning” mean to you?

While differentiating for students’ abilities is an important component of individualized learning, personalized learning is something else: giving the student the best possible learning resources not for what they know but for who they are. That includes what are often called a student’s preferred learning “style” or modality, but also the things they like, the culture they come from, and all the other things that most resonate with them.

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At NWEA, we recognize the need for personalization doesn’t stop with curriculum; the best assessments give students the best opportunity to show what they know by giving them a context in which they can succeed. Many of my colleagues spend their days working on assessments where students have choices and even (blasphemously!) have fun. Personalized learning provides that crucial feeling of empowerment to every student.

What’s the single most important piece of advice you have for teachers when it comes to analyzing and using assessment data?

While skill in using assessment data is critical, it’s hard to overstate how influential mindsets can be when first approaching data. Almost every school these days lives in an accountability-heavy, top-down, punitive environment around tests and testing. That can lead teachers to feel that the assessments their district or state force them to give only provide information that’s irrelevant to them or that they don’t care about.

High quality assessments, even when they come as a mandate, are nevertheless opportunities to understand what students know and can do. That understanding is a prerequisite to personalization and differentiation: to pick the right destination for a student, you have to know where they start. I would encourage teachers to approach their assessments not as hammers wielded by the front office, but as the best available windows into their students’ current abilities and their opportunities to grow.

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