The last time I interviewed Matt Chapman was nearly a decade ago, when he was finalist to run the Port of Portland. He didn’t get the job but he did end up getting the office. Chapman and his team at Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) recently moved into the building downtown vacated by the port, bringing new energy and jobs into Old Town, with big potential for expansion.
Actually, Chapman didn’t end up taking the spacious corner office with the gorgeous view of the Willamette River formerly occupied by the port’s executive director, Bill Wyatt. He opted to convert the room into a library, where the shelves are lined with books about children, learning and education policy. He says he's thrilled to move to gritty Old Town, where employees can see daily reminders of the deep societal challenges that education professionals wrestle with.
NWEA was created 25 years ago in Portland by a team of education researchers who developed a scale for adaptive testing based on the principles of psychometrics. Basically, the better the student does answering questions, the harder the questions become - and vice versa. The scale worked and still does. NWEA is a leader in the field of computer adaptive testing for K-12 students. Five million children use their products.
NWEA is a 501c3 nonprofit education organization, but it isn’t that dissimilar from the software company that Chapman grew to profitability in the 1990s, CFI. It is built on a classic software-as-a-service revenue model, with school districts purchasing testing services annually. Chapman says the retention rate among school districts is over 90 percent, with new partners signing up every year. The organization has a database of 200 million tests taken by children over the years.
NWEA grew on the strength of its products for several decades, but the organization ran into financial difficulties along the way. The board decided it was time to hire a leader with experience running large, quickly growing organizations. A headhunter contacted Chapman, who has a deep interest in kids and education as a co-founder of New Avenues for Youth and a board member for the University of Portland and the Portland Schools Foundation.
The board recognized the fit immediately, interviewing Chapman for the first time on a Friday and hiring him on the following Wednesday.
It was a good hire. When Chapman took over NWEA in 2006 he was employee number 180. Today the organization has 400 jobs after hiring 120 people in 2010. Revenues have doubled from $26 million to $72 million. The average salary is about $80,000. The organization’s payroll is $24 million.
Chapman says he expects the numbers to continue improving. An NWEA team is working on a new open-source assessment platform to accommodate much larger school districts, such as Chicago’s. In addition, Chapman and other NWEA executives and consultants are lobbying hard to bring about a shift in the allocation of education testing resources, from “accountability” to education. Currently, under “no child left behind” policies, most of the money spent on testing goes towards “accountability,” i.e., which districts are performing up to standards and which aren’t. Chapman makes a strong case that the money could be better spent on tests that actually help children learn – all children.
If he and his allies can manage to make that case, the educational services that NWEA provides will be in even higher demand than they are currently. That would be good news for Old Town, Portland and Oregon.
Ben Jacklet is managing editor for Oregon Business.