EdFix Episode 38: Can Standardized Tests Bridge the Equity Gap?

As President and CEO of ETS (Educational Testing Service), Amit Sevak is keenly aware of the growing concern over the perceived value of education and standardized testing. To address these challenges, he is leading a transformation at ETS towards a more human-centric approach, with a focus on educator solutions, global mobility, and professional credentialing. And he believes that crafting assessments that showcase skills in new ways, backed by rigorous research, can help break the cycle of entrenched inequalities in education and open up new avenues of opportunity in the workforce.




I actually believe that measurement can actually help reduce inequity by helping individuals, regardless of where they're from, demonstrate their strengths.

This is EdFix, your source for insights about the promise and practice of education. Welcome. I am your host, Michael Feuer. I'm the Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University, and today it is a special pleasure for me to have a conversation with Amit Sevak, who is the president and CEO of ETS. And as my notes remind me, Amit has been in this role now just over a year.
Just by way of introduction, Amit has a wonderful and very important career in education, having led institutions in Spain, in Malaysia, and in Mexico. He is known as a leader in innovation and in the aspiration for improved workplace prospects for thousands of students and workers with whom he has engaged directly and indirectly. Amit is an executive coach among other things and has served on numerous boards. He's the founder of Mindset Global, which is an education investment firm, has worked in research, has been a professor, has been an advisor, and in his spare time now is running the world's, I believe it is, the world's largest measurement organization.

Amit Sevak, welcome to EdFix. Let me start with an easy question. What's happening in the world of education?

Michael, thank you so much for having me on the show. It's great to be with you and with your listeners. What's happening in the world of education? There's a lot going on. There's a lot going on in the US. There's a lot going on internationally. I think of education in three broad buckets. You've got the K-12, the higher ed and the workforce development side, but the broad themes that cut across all of those areas, I think, are relatively consistent.

I think the first is there's an incredible awakening of a question of the value of the education that one is receiving. And this has been accelerated from our COVID years, when parents on the K-12 side got visibility into what was being taught, the curriculum, the assessments, and they started asking the question of what's happening. There was a greater awareness there. On the higher ed side, you're seeing a greater awareness and questioning of what's the value proposition of a degree.

The 16th State California, just last couple of weeks ago, announced that they're no longer requiring a degree for many jobs that required a degree at the state level. And on the workforce side, there's a lot of questions around what is the efficacy, the impact, of corporate learning, workforce development programs provided by governments or nonprofits. What's really the outcome? Are people getting the skills they need to be effective in the work world?

And so there's, I would say, number one in the world is just a growing, broad awareness in the K-12 and the higher ed, in the workforce side that there's something wrong in the state of Denmark. There's something wrong. To use that old Hamlet phrase, there's something wrong here. There's something fundamental.
Now, there's one aspect of what the problem is. The other is what the solutions are. And here is where I think there's a lot of excitement. This is the exciting part, where I think there's an openness to innovate, Michael, like I've never seen in my career in education. And in the world of education that excites me.

In the K-12 world, a growing acceptance of various types of media, whether it's full online courses, whether it's complimentary materials, much more openness to innovate that expanded, not just in the United States, but internationally, many education technology organizations to really scale up and serve in a way that, for many decades, education technology companies were just not able to do because the awareness wasn't there and the openness wasn't there. But now, awareness of the problems are there and openness to solve is there.

On the higher ed side, the same thing. Much more willingness, virtual internships, trying new kinds of retention tools for mental health, trying all kinds of different and alternative ways to think about admissions. A lot of innovation is happening, and on the workforce side as well.

So I think those are two big themes I see, more awareness, more creativity, and let's try new things. Let's test new things, let's pilot new things.

And then the last thing I'll say, in the world of education, what's going on, is I think there's a growing awareness that we don't actually have very good data about the outcomes of education. If you look in the healthcare industry or if you look in finance or let's look at sports, I know more about my favorite baseball player, since this is football season, I know more about the quarterback and the Baltimore Orioles, Lamar Jackson's statistics, than I do about my own children's statistics of what's happening for them in the classroom. What learning are they getting? How are they developing? How are their stats improving year over year on different skills?

And so I think more and more governments, in particular, increasingly large districts, and certainly forward-looking university leaders are starting to say, "We need better data to help manage," and not data at the, "Did they graduate or not graduate?" We now have that kind of attainment data, if you will. Did I get a high school diploma? Did I get a college degree? That attainment data is there. But what's actually happening in the classroom? What skills are going in? What behaviors are shaping? How can we measure what matters? Which is that? And so more and more awareness and asks. I mean, we're getting a ton of requests at ETS for more and more data. And I think that's an example of this growing need for that.

So here's the next question then, which is ETS has been the lead, in the forefront, of anything having to do with educational evaluation and measurement for a long time. How is ETS visualizing itself in this era of increased innovation and, to some extent, anxiety about whether the whole system is performing the way we'd like?

Yeah. No, thank you for that. A bit of context. ETS was founded 75 years ago, was founded with a focus on tests for admissions. That was our initial core value proposition. We're a nonprofit, a mission oriented nonprofit, very mission oriented, and we've got a simple mission that has been passed down for decades and that I not only inherit but embrace, and that mission is to advance quality and equity in education through assessments, research and related services. So we're really on this planet with a public interest, a public good in mind. We want to really advance both quality and equity in education. We want to raise the playing field, raise standards. And so for us, as I look at ETS's incredible and rich heritage, some of the most iconic methods and tools that are used worldwide for how we measure educational attainment and progress are invented here or have been applied here at scale.

And so we're really proud of that. I'm really proud of that. And yet at this moment, we are going through a tremendous transformation, Michael. We really are, and we're going through that across multiple aspects. At a broad level, we're moving from a focus on the test to a focus on the person. We're calling it People Forward. We're calling it how do we move individuals forward through better insights and solutions that can help them, whether they're in education, whether they're in the work world.

And so for us, it's this significant shift and while it seems like, "Oh, you're just talking to me about being customer-centric," I think it's a little bit more profound than that. What we're really believing is that what we're really good at, which is measuring people's abilities and finding their fit in the world, that we can do much more than just provide a score report. We can actually help provide recommendations for the individual and to third parties on where the fit is, on helping really advance progress in education and work, bringing people forward.

And so that fundamental shift, that human-centric approach, is allowing us to really reimagine the future of ETS. So what are we transforming? We're transforming across three major strategic pillars. One, educator solutions. We want to help teachers, whether they're in a K-12 context or in a higher ed context, really analyze their skills, develop their skills, and be successful. We believe teachers, the educators, are the workforce that multiplies education. They're the force multiplier of our entire global education system in the US and globally. And there's an opportunity at this incredibly sensitive moment when teachers in K-12, professors in higher ed, are under a lot of pressure—pressure because the world is changing around them in terms of the purpose of education, pressure because the world of work is changing so they're constantly playing in a game in which the goalpost keeps moving as to what we're supposed to be doing, pressure financially that their institutions are facing.

And amidst all of that, we have an opportunity to serve. So with our mission in mind and with our public interest in our hearts, we're saying, "How can we develop products and solutions with the educator in mind?" So we're making a very strategic focus, both in the US internationally, and coming up with assessment tools and coming up with other forms of services to provide support. These are AI enabled. These will be focused on the journey of the teacher or the professor, and this will be looking at it across multiple disciplines.

Second big strategic pillar for us is really focusing on global mobility. We're thinking a lot about international students and migrants, Michael. We're really thinking deeply about that. We see this as a segment of the population that we want to serve. We believe there's a lot of stress there, and we think that we can put our experience. our capabilities, to really enable that. And we happen to have, through our test. TOEFL, the test of English as a foreign language that's been around for decades, an opportunity. We already serve nearly a million individuals every year who take TOEFL, whether they're coming from an international country like a China or an India or a Nigeria, to take TOEFL to come into higher ed, or they're in some countries taking TOEFL as an exit exam for their institution to demonstrate their English competency, or there's someone in the US that's using it in creative ways to demonstrate their English competency. We see an opportunity to build an ecosystem around TOEFL to really serve this international population. And again, it's not just for students, but where our vision is really to also serve migrants.

And then the third big strategic pillar as we move forward is we think there's a tremendous opportunity to help what we call credentialing bodies, which are governments or professional associations that seek to provide certificates or other forms of credentials to their members, the Nurses' Association, the Welders' Association, these associations are looking to deliver value that's very specific to that job type, and so where we do assessments well and where we can tailor them for particular industries.

So as I look forward, I think there's a whole range of products and services that we're going to be providing for educators, for the mobility audience and for governments and credentialing bodies. All of this is underpinning, though, on research. And what I'm so proud of is we have an incredible research organization that we're actually building from strength to strength. As we move forward, we're going to be hiring, both in the US and internationally, scientists, project leaders, AI specialists, capability developers.

We're just in the process of posting new positions next month. We're in the process of defining the future of assessment trends. We're building capabilities in three broad areas, AI enabled assessment development, a whole focus on skill-based assessments through the partnership that we've launched and announced with the Carnegie Foundation, and a whole range of activities to serve learners beyond the test. So I know I said up mouthful there, but I think the punchline here is, as I see going forward at ETS, I see a much bigger focus on skill-based assessments, AI enabled assessments, really focusing on putting these three groups at the center of our future capabilities, but always underpinned by a very, very high focus on quality and validity in our research foundation.

It sounds like there is, embedded in there, a certain effort to, at risk of sounding a little like jargon, but there's a kind of democratization of testing underway here. It is engaging with the test taker. It's engaging with the person who is essentially eager to have an assessment for purposes of advancement. But this, of course, bumps into part of what ETS has struggled with for a long time, which is the extent to which the uses of measures and test-based data reduce the inequities, create opportunities for people to learn about themselves and move forward, or on the other hand, to what extent does the use of those measures perpetuate the kinds of inequities that I know you're eager to continue working on? How does all of that play into the agenda for the new ETS?

Yeah, so a couple of thoughts. The first is that we're already doing several things to help make our products and services more accessible, more reachable. One example is we are in the process of launching, during this year, new tests that are shorter, that are more accessible. We're always watching our test price to make it reasonable and accessible so that we can really serve as many learners as we can. We took the GRE, as an example, from over three and a half hours down to less than two hours with the same validity and reliability, the same foundational support behind it, because it's got the ETS name behind it. And so we want to ensure that it still has the same assessment integrity and standards. And so for us, making the tests themselves much more accessible is a key part of this.

The other thing I wanted to highlight is we're continuing to focus on the equity implications of education. What we feel very strongly is that there's a lot of folks that'll say to me, "Hey, should we just get rid of the tests? Should we just get rid of admissions tests? Should we get rid of testing? Because tests show that certain groups do better than other groups, and basically you're just perpetuating the inequity."

My response is, "Are you ready to throw the thermometer out and just assume better weather?" Is that what we want here? Do we want to shoot the messenger and say, "Hey look, this test is showing inequity, therefore we're not going to do the test." My invitation for us to consider is, on an ongoing basis, we need to challenge all tests and ensure that they're really fair. We need to make sure that the test questions are fair, that regardless of a person's background, that they can access that test and be able to relate to the questions that are being asked so that there's equity in that. We need to ensure that the people that are building, designing and scoring assessments are looking at this holistically, coming from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to really bring that aspect to the building, developing and scoring of the test.

But to me, I think we need more measurement, different kinds of measurement perhaps, but definitely more measurement so we can identify root causes of inequity and we can start to put in place... And here's an important part, I actually believe that measurement can actually help reduce inequity by helping individuals, regardless of where they're from, demonstrate their strengths, put forward, through different kinds of measurement.

Let me give you an example. If you take a standard test that's a multiple choice test that requires you to have learned a lot of content, perhaps a history class or another content rich class, we are assuming that across multiple people taking that test, you got similar instruction, similar access to good quality curriculum, similar preparation, and we all know that that's challenging to control for in a test.

But if you ask a different question and you say, "Well, what if we actually did a different kind of test," perhaps instead of it being a multiple choice test that assumes a lot of those things, we actually did a test that was a project-based test, a project-based effort, where we're inviting someone to present the results, and therefore we get a different kind of quality. We also may look at collaborative type of projects where an individual can present with others the results of some work. Then you see and start to measure things like collaboration, perhaps communication skills, perhaps creativity in very different ways that, by the way, might be more relevant to the future job that that individual is going to get than whether they know 19th century French, and no disrespect French history.

But you see my point that there's opportunities with different kinds of assessments to allow people to showcase skills differently, and where measurement can actually enable individuals of different backgrounds to have a chance to show what they're made of and to be out in the world. And with badging and certifications, we have just an incredible opportunity to reimagine this whole equation of how measurement and equity can go together.

Let me pivot to a question that I'm curious about. Since you have worked a lot in other countries and you have a good sense of essentially the global perspective on this, the American experience with testing and assessment is, I think, kind of special. And to what extent are other countries, whether there they're our competitors or whether they're our friends and countries that are more in the developing world, to what extent do any of these principles of the uses of measurement to advance an equitable agenda of opportunity, how does that play out in other places that you might want to mention for us?

There are countries throughout the world that are taking this on at the federal level, and I think that's something that has both the excitement but also the opportunity to think through. A lot of countries I'm seeing are really looking at ways to take their assessments and the guidelines that they're giving their institutions on the K-12 and higher ed side into more prescriptive ways. In the Middle East and in Asia in particular, I see governments really getting engaged. ETS is proud to have been awarded a contract in India earlier this year called the PERAK Initiative, which is under the Ministry of Education. And what the ministry wanted to do is they wanted to set reasonable common guidelines of how assessments are done across all of the 30 plus states in India.

Now, this is a big deal. If you think about the federal government trying to set reasonable standards on how assessments are done, to harmonize, to use the term locally, the different assessment mechanisms so that there's interoperability so a student taking a test in Calcutta, and then their family moves to another place, has an opportunity to have reasonable equivalency to demonstrate those skills if they move to Bombay. And so that's an example of where the federal government is looking to help its citizens by providing some common frameworks across states.

You look in the Middle East with very different backgrounds, a growing awareness of opportunities to encourage more women to participate in the education process, you're seeing a big focus on looking at ways to assess to provide more support to communities that are not getting the access that they've historically gotten. China is doing a ton in AI enablement, a ton in AI enablement with assessment. Countries like South Korea, Singapore, Finland, Denmark are really advanced in skill-based assessments for employers to use.

So I think for us, some of the learnings here in the States is that there's a wide world out there of experimentation, of new ideas. And I think having a global perspective on where some of these assessments are happening, what they can mean, can, I think, mean great, great dividends for us here in the States.

It's just wonderfully refreshing to hear an assessment of what's going on globally with respect to the continued belief that education is the way we open doors for opportunity, and the fact that so many countries are thinking about that and thinking about how can we do a better job of connecting measurement science to essentially the improvement of opportunity, that goes back to the very first thing that you said, which is that there is a lot of question out there about the value proposition.


But behind that, there's a lot of people who value it enough to be investing all of this.

Yeah, absolutely. Here's my case for America, for taking our assessments to the next level. I think, Michael, it is in our interest as a country, as a nation, to really raise the bar on the use of fair and equitable assessments across K-12, higher ed, and workforce. We are living in unprecedented times. We have a population of 300 million diverse backgrounds, experiences, aspirations, and we have an opportunity at this moment, I believe, Michael, to really be, through assessments, helping individuals, helping schools, helping higher ed, helping companies, governments, agencies really start to understand our human potential. We have human capital here. We talk about our access to all other kinds of resources, but let's get back to the people. And by giving individuals the chance to know their strengths, to know how they can fit into different career paths, to think about what their possibilities are, can really help us as a country start to really unleash that potential.

And to me, I think that we're at such a critical time right now, both economically, to help us prepare for the future of work where we're helping individuals go into these future jobs. Hey, if I want to be an actor, am I assessed and have a clarity of who I am to go into that field versus to go into biotech versus to go into be a banker? And so all of these types of future jobs, and then the emerging jobs, the clean energy, the AI enabled prompt engineer. So assessments can help individuals find their place economically.

But I wanted to, Michael, make an important point, which I know you also care deeply about, which is democracy. And the opportunity we have right now with assessments to really help think through and help enable the future of our country is so important. We're living in polarized times, and there's certain skills that I'd like to invite us to consider in particularly the middle school and high school years, and certainly higher ed, that we really want for the citizenry of the future.

And when I'm thinking about civic education, I'm not talking about do you know that there are a hundred senators in the Congress? Do you know that there are 50 states? All the basic facts. I'm talking about actually that next level of citizen re-engagement, which is civic reasoning. We can measure that, Michael. We can actually measure, in a classroom, do you have that level of civic reasoning? Can you have dialogue with another person in a respectful way? Can you have empathy and listen and understand? Can you get data from a media source and analyze it objectively? These are aspects of skills for the 21st century, and I think assessments can play a role, not just to help us for the future of work, but also for the future of democracy.

Before we break, I do just want to ask one quick question. How did Amit Sevak find himself in this kind of professional path? And say something about your childhood that you can relate to where you are today.

I was born and raised in Chicago. My parents came from India, like many immigrants in the states, to pursue a new life. My dad came for studies. He came here like so many international students to get an American degree and to work in the United States. And so his experience with going into higher ed in the US and really seeing the value of an American higher education experience really impressed me. And that's this pillar on global mobility, TOEFL. I mean, these aspects of ETS really relate to me from my dad's side.

Michael, on my mom's side, I wanted to share that my mom, also like my dad was born and raised in India, and when she got married to my dad, she got married when she was just about to start college. So when she came to the states, smart, analytical, hardworking, committed, but she never got the opportunity to go to college.

And so on my mom's side, I really appreciated the opportunities that come from having that educational experience, that confidence, that opportunity to be relating and just in a different way. But I also really appreciated, from my mom, the humility that comes from just hard work. You can get a lot done.

And so I think for me, I both my parents have this incredible value of education, this incredible value of hard work, this incredible desire to do good in the world. And both my parents' fathers, so both of my grandfathers, were teachers. And so I think the educational part comes from them as well. My brother in Texas taught for many years in K-12, was in the Dallas Public School System for many years. And so we have education all around us, but I think it was some of these values around the importance of education, the importance of hard work, the importance of respect and seeing people for who they are, and that individuals have so much to offer, whether they have the degree or not, and to give them a chance to share some of that with the world.

I feel really called to be at ETS, Michael. I don't feel like this is a job. I feel like this is a moment where an organization like ETS that has always been searching for doing public interest work is at a moment right now. So we have to rise to that moment. We have a moment where we, with our experience, can really do something incredible in the US and globally.

And so yeah, I feel like we've got a lot of work to do. Thanks for the kind words, but we're just getting started here at ETS. And I really want take a minute just to recognize and thank you, as well, for all of your many contributions at George Washington in advising and helping us in the measurement field and just really your incredible passion and commitment for the issues in the work you do, the writing you do, the advice you do, the inputs you provided to me as well. It's just been invaluable. So thank you, Michael, for everything that you do.

Well, thank you. That's quite generous of you, and I feel very lucky to be working with people such as you, Amit, because I know that we share a lot in our hopes for the future. And having this opportunity to just talk to you about some of the really, really exciting ideas that have to do with actually an aspect of education and social mobility that has always been a little bit problematic. Nobody really likes to sit down and take a test, but it has become so much more than that. And it is now, as you say, at the cusp of becoming one of the great levers of advancement.

So a big thank you to Amit Sevak, the president and CEO of ETS.

To our listeners, if you enjoyed this episode, which I am 142% convinced that you did, you can subscribe to the EdFix podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, wherever you listen to your podcasts. We have a website called edfixpodcast.com where you can also listen to other previous episodes. A big thank you to our wonderful executive producer, engineer, casting director, and coach, Touran Waters who makes this possible for us. Amit, again, thank you so much for joining us on EdFix.

Thank you, Michael.


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