KU educational testing center expands scope

Friday, May 10, 2013


LAWRENCE — Using high-quality evaluation programs to improve the performance of K-12 students, adults and public agencies is the focus of a restructured University of Kansas research group with a long track record of success. Its new name reflects its expanded mission, and the need for its work is growing nationwide.

The Achievement and Assessment Institute combines the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation (CETE), established in 1983, and the Institute for Educational Research and Public Service, established in 1997. The new structure includes four centers that represent the diversity of services and partners: Center for Educational Opportunity Programs, Center for Public Partnerships and Research, Agile Technology Solutions and CETE. 

Neal Kingston, professor of psychology and research in education, is director of the institute, which employs more than 300 staff and students on the Lawrence campus.  The focus of the institute, says Kingston, is to leverage KU’s capabilities to serve the increasing research needs of schools and other public agencies whose increasingly limited resources provide a niche opportunity for KU.

“We have partnered with Kansas state agencies for more than 30 years,” he said, “especially the Department of Education. Combined, the U.S. Department of Education and Kansas agencies account for 90 percent of our research funding. In the future, we expect to work with more states and more federal agencies, and we plan to branch out into contract work in addition to research.”

The Achievement and Assessment Institute has a current portfolio of grants that includes approximately $27 million in such funding. Effective July 1, it will be recognized by KU’s Office of Research and Graduate Studies as one of just 12 designated university research centers and institutes. Others in this elite category are the Biodiversity Institute, Bioengineering Research Center, Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, Center for Research on Learning, Hall Center for the Humanities, Higuchi Biosciences Center, Institute for Policy & Social Research, Information and Telecommunication Technology Center, Life Span Institute and Transportation Research Institute.

Kingston envisions the Achievement and Assessment Institute as an entrepreneurial organization. He is working with the KU Center for Technology Commercialization to find ways of maximizing the licensing potential of research.  For example, a conference in Lawrence in July will provide a forum to make presentations to companies and other researchers about groundbreaking research stemming from the Dynamic Learning Maps project, a comprehensive alternate assessment system designed to measure what students with cognitive disabilities know and can do.  KU received a $22 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 to support development of the program, and 14 states plan to implement it starting in 2014.

Another example of the institute’s expanded scope is the Career Pathways Assessment System, which uses computer-based tests to help students determine their career readiness.  The system was introduced in 2011 and is currently guided by a consortium of three states: Kansas, Colorado and Mississippi.  Kingston would like to expand that consortium and move in other directions as well, while keeping the focus on service to public agencies.

“Kansas pays less than most other states for its testing programs because it relies on KU rather than existing commercial vendors,” said Kingston.  “The state pays about $10 per set of tests per student per year.  The national average is two to three times that amount.  On our own, or in cooperation with commercial vendors, the institute could help other states reduce their costs and maintain high levels of quality.”

More goes into standardized tests than most people realize, said Kingston.  The content must be written, edited and reviewed to ensure accuracy.  Data must be gathered on whether the tests accomplish their purpose.  Technical manuals are developed for how to administer the tests, and complicated reports are generated once the tests are given.  Increasingly, the delivery of tests involves computer software.  KU has the capacity to do all of this work in one institute.

Beyond education, the institute seeks more contract work with agencies that need specialized evaluation, professional development, and systems planning services but lack the staff to carry out this work themselves.  “The institute has the respect of state agencies everywhere,” said Kingston.  “Now we want to leverage that intellectual capital to assist a wider range of public sector clients.”

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