Interview | Jack Stenner Takes Education Beyond the Metrics

MetaMetrics® is the indirect result of the research Dr. Jack Stenner conducted as part of a national evaluation of Head Start. Jack was charged with comparing different assessment systems that resulted in different outcome measures. Based on subsequent conversations with Dr. John Carroll (University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill), Dr. Benjamin Wright (University of Chicago) and MetaMetrics co-founder Dr. Malbert Smith III, “We all agreed that my research uncovered the need for a standard measurement framework—one that used a single scale and metric to evaluate reading ability in terms an educator, parent and student could easily understand and apply,” says Jack. With Dr. Smith, he founded MetaMetrics in 1984 with the first of five grants from the National Institutes of Health. Over a twelve-year period, these grants funded the research that resulted in The Lexile® Framework for Reading, which today is recognized globally as the most widely adopted reading measurement system. In this interview, Jack offers an in-depth look into educational measurement systems, his thoughts on education in general these days—and why work in the area of individualizing learning is just getting started.

Victor: What does the name MetaMetrics mean?

Jack: Meta is Greek for beyond, so MetaMetrics means beyond the metrics. The name represents the distinct value of our educational measurement frameworks. They transcend traditional scales and metrics, such as percentiles and scale scores, to provide valuable, actionable data about student achievement that can be used to guide instruction and help them achieve their academic and professional potential.

Victor: What types of educational measurement systems does MetaMetrics offer?

Jack: MetaMetrics offers four distinct frameworks that measure achievement in reading (English and Spanish), mathematics and writing. The resulting metrics provide unique insights about academic ability and the potential for growth, enabling learners to achieve their goals at every developmental stage. We are best known around the world for The Lexile Framework for Reading. Our other frameworks—El Sistema Lexile para Leer, the Spanish version of the reading framework; The Quantile® Framework for Mathematics; and The Lexile Framework for Writing—continue to grow in popularity. In addition to licensing our metrics to state departments of education and test and text publishers, we provide professional development, resource measurement and customized consulting services.

Victor: What is something interesting or relevant about the development history of your frameworks?

Jack: When we introduced The Lexile Framework for Reading more than two decades ago, our methodology was considered revolutionary. At that time, the reading community argued that reading was comprised of many skills and processes (multi-dimensional), while our approach treated reading development as uni-dimensional. More recently, there’s been a movement away from reporting part scores and a greater emphasis on a single metric. The Common Core State Standards, for example, uses our Lexile measures to define the continuum of increasing text complexity from grades 1-12 . The Standards employ Lexile measures as key indicators of text complexity and provide recommended Lexile grade bands for reading comprehension development to ensure students are on track for college and career text demands.

Victor: How do your frameworks differ from other measurement systems?

Jack: All of our measurement frameworks evaluate academic ability based on actual assessments, rather than generalized age or grade levels. And because we measure both student ability and the difficulty of the instructional materials on common, developmental scales, we can monitor growth throughout the entire educational lifecycle—from childhood to adulthood. Another key differentiator is that our frameworks are open systems; they can be integrated into any third-party assessment program. Much like BASF’s business model, we don’t make the products you use, we make the products you use better.

Victor: How do students receive your metrics? How have they been integrated into technology products?

Jack: Our reading, writing and mathematics metrics are available from more than 50 testing and instructional programs. When students take a test that has been linked with one of our frameworks, their scale score is reported as one of our metrics (for example, a reading comprehension score is reported as a Lexile measure). More recently, our metrics have been integrated into a growing number of personal learning platforms (PLPs)—both in our own system called OASIS™ and those of our partners. PLPs blur the distinction between assessment and instruction. They target instruction based on student performance and provide educators with real-time scoring and feedback to guide instruction. For example, with Lexile measures in OASIS or Capstone Digital’s myON reader, educators can supplement whole-classroom instruction with articles and books on a common theme but at different levels for each student. And because the difficulty of the test items adapt automatically to a student’s reading ability, PLPs offer more precise measures than traditional one-size-fits-all assessment models.
At the same time, however, we must be cautious of PLP’s integrated learning scaffolds. Audio and video supports, for example, can become a crutch for some struggling students and actually inhibit learning. PLPs must be engineered in a manner that offers appropriate levels of scaffolding to enhance teaching and learning.

Victor: How can your metrics be used with students?

Jack: Our metrics have many valuable uses. Perhaps, the most valuable is their ability to accurately match students with ability-appropriate resources—whether that be in school or at home—and forecast their expected success rate with those resources. Unlike other test scores, our metrics are actionable—educators and parents can use them to help students find materials that will provide the right level of challenge for their ability and learning goals.
For example, educators can use Lexile measures to differentiate instruction. Within any classroom or grade, there will be a range of readers and a range of materials to be read. Lexile measures help educators supplement instruction with materials on the same lesson topic but at a text complexity level that matches a student’s unique reading ability.
Educators can also use Lexile measures to monitor student growth in relation to state and national proficiency levels, as well as college- and career-readiness standards. As mentioned earlier, Lexile measures were cited in the Common Core State Standards as a reliable means to gauge text complexity. The Standards offer recommended Lexile bands by grade to guide students in reading materials at the right complexity level to ensure they are on track to meet the reading demands of their academic and professional pursuits.

Victor: Who are your frameworks particularly tailored for?

Jack: Our frameworks are designed for learners of all ages and levels. Because we measure both student ability and the difficulty of the instructional materials on common, developmental scales, we can accurately target instruction and monitor growth throughout the entire educational lifecycle—from childhood to adulthood.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Jack: I see a great deal of promise in today’s educational reform agendas—from an increased emphasis on PLPs to provide more targeted learning experiences to the Common Core State Standards’ focus on ensuring all students graduate college- and career-ready. PLPs also provide opportunities to extend the school day and lead naturally into the notion of credit by proficiency to gauge student progress based on what they have actually learned and not solely on time spent in the classroom. The Common Core Standards move us one step closer to consistent proficiency standards across the states. They conceptualize the K-12 text continuum to ensure students are engaging in increasingly complex readings as they progress through school and, ultimately, toward the text demands of their postsecondary pursuits. Historically, education has been immune to this type of innovation. With new technological advances—and new philanthropic funding sources like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—there will be more opportunities to extend educational research. I’m excited about the potential of our metrics to help fuel this research.

Victor: How does MetaMetrics address some of your concerns about education?

Jack: As education moves toward more personalized learning, today’s one-size-fits-all textbook will become a thing of the past. MetaMetrics will play a significant role in the reformation as our metrics—and their integration into various third-party products—allow for a greater level of personalization. And, at the same time, allow educators and students to accurately monitor their growth in relation to state and national standards.

Victor: What are your general thoughts on measures of success, like assessment tools?

Jack: Over the past two decades, the education industry has essentially taken traditional paper-and-pencil tests and made them computer-based. But we can do more, especially because computers now support psychometric creativity like never before. And MetaMetrics is at the forefront of this thinking. Our metrics support machine-generated item types that adapt to test takers on the fly, and provide more accurate measures of growth. In addition to new item types, we’re also working on new psychometrics to accommodate the more individualized data generated by adaptive assessments. When machines auto-generate items, no item is shared by students. Traditional psychometrics cannot deal with each student taking a unique item, so we’ll need to develop new underlying mathematical formulas to accommodate these item types and the data they generate.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Jack: In short, the power of technology in individualizing learning will be revolutionary. And that work is just beginning.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:

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