Interview | Naomi Menikoff: Measuring Up with TestWiz

When Naomi Menikoff started dataMetrics Software in 1994, student assessment was not as critical an issue as it has become these days. Back then, many districts administered standardized, national tests. “The assessments took valuable time out of instruction, results did not get back to the districts for many weeks, and the results were hardly used,” says Naomi. “The teachers typically did not do anything with the information,” she says. Now, a lot of that has changed—dramatically. Here, Naomi shares why.

Victor: Why did you create dataMetrics? 

Naomi: I had both a teaching background as well as 10 years working in education-related software. One of the packages I sold had to do with a way to process standardized tests locally with a Scantron-like machine. That appealed to me because at least with local processing, districts could get the results immediately – and save money. But that particular product was getting very old.

By 1994, the Windows platform was ubiquitous and the product was still running on DOS and Apple. The company that owned the program (Tescor) saw that their product had reached the end of its life and wanted to get out of the business. They had support commitments to existing customers and were happy to have me take over that responsibility. They knew that my goal was to create a replacement product that would run under Windows.

I had a background in both teaching and software sales to educators, but I was not a programmer. Fortunately, my husband, Arthur is a mathematician (with university teaching credentials) and was working for a defense contractor who was offering time off without pay while waiting for some government contracts to come in. So it was really opportune. Arthur took a few months off to get the basic structure of TestWiz designed and programmed. We did not simply convert the Tescor product into Windows. We took the idea that we wanted to provide local scanning and scoring and created a new product, TestWiz, from scratch—to run under the latest Windows platform. We had a replacement product available within one year for the 50 some odd districts we were supporting. The districts were willing and eager to switch to a Windows platform.

So to answer your question, I created dataMetrics because there was an opportunity to start a business at a very low cost that had an existing customer base and served the education market in what I perceived a useful way.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Naomi: Arthur came up with the dataMetrics name—since we are helping educators measure data. We had to add the Software part, since the name dataMetrics was already taken by several other companies.

Victor: What about the TestWiz name?

Naomi: I came up with that one. It relates to the fact that we are dealing with tests and that we make it easy.

Victor: How has the software evolved in response to the market?

Naomi: The 1990s saw the expansion of state-wide assessments. In Massachusetts for example, passing the state tests became a graduation requirement. In trying to promote the use of the data, states released electronic data files as well as hard copy reports. The data files were not easily used by district personnel. In 1998 we enhanced TestWiz to support tests that were processed outside of our software by developing an import routine for the electronic data files. Once imported, the data became easily accessible to non-technical folks.

We continued to enhance TestWiz so that it supported dynamic reporting for tests that were scanned locally or outside of our system. We even created a routine for key entering scores for such assessments as the DIBELS. We kept up with the Windows platform as it developed. The next big development effort was to make the software available online. That effort was begun in 2006 and released a year later. TestWiz.Net was born.

Our customer input has continuously guided our development. And we have all seen major shifts in educational assessments. State assessments have taken front stage, and a whole crop of ‘test prep’ products have become available. These have always been available to prepare students for college entrance exams. But now they were being offered as ways to do better on the state assessments in K-12. I personally disagree with using instructional time to prepare students for a test. I do strongly believe in using assessments to guide instruction. And if the assessment results are actually used, a fair assumption is that the students’ performance on state assessments will improve. The challenge is to accept the state’s frameworks for instruction and align instruction as well as the assessments with the same frameworks.

In 2008, we enhanced Testwiz.Net so that teachers could process and score locally developed tests. The tests could be linked to state frameworks. In 2010, we signed an agreement with ETS for their Formative Assessments Item Bank. Teachers could now create tests online pulling items from the highly regarded bank where items are linked to learning standards (including the new Common Core Standards) and show item difficulty as well as the Bloom’s taxonomy.

Victor: What about the latest assessment developments with the Common Core Standards and national tests?

Naomi: TestWiz.Net allows teachers to create tests where the items are linked to the Common Core. As for the national tests that will become available in a few years, our TestWiz.Net tool will be positioned to report on the results alongside districts’ locally developed tests.

Thanks to the national focus on formative assessments for Response to Intervention and Teacher Accountability, we are seeing a shift in the attitude towards local assessments. It used to be that teachers were free to give quizzes and exams at will. They scored the tests by hand or with a standalone scanner. With and without the Race to the Top initiative, it is now becoming a requirement in many districts to develop common assessments. That is where TestWiz.Net can be most useful. We have a way to process those tests and give all the educators in a district dynamic access to the results.

Victor: Who is using your software now?

Naomi: We have more than 450 districts that use our software. Many are still just using it to help analyze a particular assessment that is ‘high stakes’ for them. But more and more are signing up for the expanded uses. We have a few districts with more than 1,500 teacher accounts, where the teachers can log in and view results on local and state assessments—students that they are currently teaching. We have a group of Charter schools that created common benchmark tests for their schools using the ETS Item Bank. The schools process and score the tests onsite. Their teachers view results online as soon as their students’ tests are scanned. We recently had a very nice article published in the Binghamton, New York local paper.

Victor: I hear a lot of talk about the importance of SIF. Are you SIF compliant?

Naomi: The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) has been an ambitious work in progress for many years. Its goal is to help connect various student data elements and give districts  a way to connect all student-related applications. The aim is to avoid the need to enter the same information more than once.

While the goal is extremely worthy, the execution has not been smooth. That is because districts need to create software that is called a SIF Agent that is the manager of the various sources of data. It is costly and technically challenging.

TestWiz requires student information and rosters so that our reporting can be teacher-specific.  We also want to avoid duplicate data entry.

As a result, we created a pseudo-SIF Agent called AutoRoster. It is specific to our application. We customize a direct link to the student management system that houses the student and teacher information TestWiz needs. The two databases are synchronized and duplicate data entry is avoided. We are able to link to virtually any student management system – even those that are not web-based. And the districts don’t have to get involved in the software development.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Naomi: The annual license fee is between $3 and $8 per student. The options include loading of state or national assessments, scanning and reporting on common assessments, setups for key entry of performance based assessments like the DIBELS, Fountas & Pinnell and DRA, and creating tests using the ETS Item Bank. Due to be released this summer will be the option to administer tests online that were created with the ETS bank.

Victor: Is it fair to assume that there is a lot of competition? How do you differentiate TestWiz from the others?

Naomi: When we first started in 1994, there were a couple of other companies offering local scanning. But the large companies that owned the standardized tests preferred to sell their scanning and reporting services, so the local scanning option was not marketed heavily. Now that the national focus is on assessment and quickly addressing individual and group weaknesses, the large companies are actively marketing testing repositories, even data warehouses.

Where we distinguish ourselves is in customer support and the usability of our software. For customer support, we offer a live phone connection 98 percent of the time with someone who can answer a question immediately—without voice mail and without routing to several other people.

By usability, I mean conquering the tricky challenge of making software that can be used by non-technical people with very minimal or no training at all, but still provide the needed flexibility to answer ad hoc questions. Static reports even if delivered online are not much better than the hard copy reports that have been generated for educators for years.

Giving educators access to the raw data is also not adequate, since they are not trained in how to extract the information they want out of the data. To take advantage of the data warehouse capabilities, requires learning how to author reports—a task that few districts can afford, even if the data warehouse itself is covered by state funds.

The setup, creation of tests, key entry of scores, are all done with wizard-like interfaces where the user is prompted to go from one step to the next. For reporting we have a unique interface that starts out with one test and then using customizable parameters, the user can answer questions like:

- Who are the students who were not proficient on a particular subject? Or on a strand? In rank order?

- How did those same students do on other tests?

- Let’s see an item analysis for that sub-group of students.

- Can we look at how the special education students performed over time?

- Which standards did a specific group do poorly on?

- By standard, how did that group compare with another?

It is truly a unique interface that makes answers to many permutations of similar questions available with a few clicks. So support and usability are what I think distinguishes us. Thank you for asking.

Victor: What do you see in the future of education?

Naomi: From the time of my young teaching days when I had so much trouble dealing with 27 third graders, all at different reading capabilities, I have been intrigued by the possibilities of true individualized education. Will advances in technology finally make that possible? A computing device in the hands of every student is not the whole answer. There are adaptive tests on the market, but we need adaptive teaching. We need ways to assess students’ learning styles. We need to train our teachers in how to recognize and instruct in different ways. We need to give instructional tools that support the different strategies. I think technology will definitely play an increasing role and I see our software contributing towards helping teachers better target their instruction. That is and will be our contribution.

Victor: Anything else you care to add or emphasize for our readers?

Naomi: For more information on dataMetrics and TestWiz, please visit visit our website, contact us at help@testwiz.com, or better yet, call us toll free at 800-842-0077 and speak to a knowledgeable live person.

——-

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: victor@VictorRivero.com

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