From grant to global impact: WIDA’s journey over two decades

July 7, 2023

The beginning

Picture it: The year is 2002. The winter Olympics are being held in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tobey Maguire’s “Spider-Man" is the number one movie in the world. The reality television phenomenon “American Idol” premieres. The average cost of a gallon of gasoline is $1.61. In the education world, significant changes come to United States’ schools when President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law. And out of that, the idea for WIDA is born.

NCLB was a sprawling piece of legislation that made a huge impact on K-12 educators, students and schools across the country. Perhaps a lesser-known part of the legislation included competitive grants for the creation of enhanced assessments.

The timing of this was special. At the time, Tim Boals, founder of WIDA, was working at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Boals and his colleagues had discussed the inadequacy of the currently available English proficiency tests. In Wisconsin alone, four different tests were being administered. Around the country, educators lacked the resources and guidance they needed to serve multilingual students.

“It felt really urgent at the time,” said Mariana Castro, who would join WIDA in 2006 to lead professional development. “We were getting calls from teachers all over the country and the world. I remember we were getting calls from teachers in the Philippines, and we didn’t even have an international program.”

Gary Cook, who would later become WIDA’s first director of research, told Boals it would take $3 million to develop his own assessment. The NCLB grants were offering $2 million.

“And I'm sitting there at my desk thinking Gary told me I need $3 million. I wonder if we could make the assessment on $2 million,” Boals said. “Why don't we give this a shot?”

Boals had been working with an outside consultant at the time, someone he knew from his early days in Indiana, Margo Gottlieb. Gottlieb was working in Illinois. She was the director of assessment and evaluation for the Illinois Research Center. Gottlieb was ready to dive in and apply for this grant. One of the requirements of the grant was that it had to include a consortium of states; it couldn’t just be Wisconsin applying for the funding.

“Well, just as I had worked on an alternate assessment system in Wisconsin, I had worked in Arkansas, and I had worked in Delaware. So, I got my friends together,” Gottlieb said.

Wisconsin, Delaware, Arkansas – the original three states that formed the acronym WIDA.

“That was how we got our name, which we came up with the Saturday morning that the grant was due in the FedEx Office,” Boals said. “We had just a few hours to spare.”

They knew they were going to be awarded the grant in early 2003, so they got to work on what would become the foundation of WIDA and the assessment—the learning standards. Gottlieb had experience working on the only language proficiency standards that existed at the time, so she led the way.

By the time the grant was awarded, the group of three states had already grown to eight states. Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Alabama joined the fold. In May of 2003, sixty educators and researchers from all eight states gathered in Madison, Wisconsin to begin the process of creating the standards. They were very involved in the process, bringing ideas and requests for the standards to the table.

“We started from the ground up,” Gottlieb explains. “We had to decide what theory, what philosophy, what orientation. There were so many little variables that came into play.”

Gottlieb left that meeting with a treasure trove of information and ideas. She sat down and singlehandedly wrote a draft of what would become the first published edition of WIDA’s English language development standards. The draft was given to WIDA’s partners at the Center for Applied Linguistics who were developing the assessment. Then came revisions, a focus group and a pilot. The first edition was published in 2004.

The first assessment was built based on those standards. Field testing was taking place. Meanwhile, more and more states were joining. 

“We had no marketing department, no advertising budget. All we were doing was presenting at conferences. The idea and mission were selling themselves,” Cook said.

Six people gathered around a tableWIDA had created something that didn’t exist elsewhere. It was an assessment, of course, but the assessment had the standards as a foundation. Soon there were resources and support for educators and students wrapped around all of it.

“I think that's a defining point of how we have been different,” Boals said. “That while we certainly created a great English proficiency test, and I would argue the best one out there, we didn't get in the business just to create a test. We got into business to make a difference in the classroom, and that was first and foremost in our mind.”

The photo in this section shows a gathering in the early days of WIDA, likely to discuss the development of the first assessment. From left to right: Margo Gottlieb, Jim McCobb (Vermont SEA), Jim Bauman (CAL), Fred Davidson (U of I), Meg Malone (CAL) and Tim Boals.

Growth and challenges

The first test, ACCESS for English language learners, was administered in 2005. And now WIDA would face one of its biggest early challenges. Remember, the original idea for WIDA was born in and supported by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. But this state education agency wasn’t in the business of working outside the borders of Wisconsin. As more and more states started coming on board, Boals was told he needed to find a new home for WIDA. Boals suggested the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

WIDA packed up and moved down the road. And the organization started to grow into what we know it as today. Boals and Elizabeth Cranley, the first WIDA hire at DPI, started hiring more people when they reached the university. Cranley was instrumental in the creation of the first test. She was the driver of assessment back at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the main contact between WIDA and the Center for Applied Linguistics. Some of the people hired in 2006 are fixtures of WIDA today, like Gary Cook, and Chief of Staff Merideth Trahan.

“In those early days, people used to stop by our offices, and they'd see five or six people and they couldn’t believe we were running the place with so few people,” Boals said. “Of course, we had CAL as a major contractor developing the items and we had MetriTech administering the test, but we were doing all the coordination and the leadership with those five or six people.”

The organization would continue to grow each year. As of July 2023, WIDA had a staff of 136 people.

Other challenges would confront the organization, too. One came in 2014 when WIDA began the transition from a paper test to online testing. It was a major transition. As Boals said, “it was not easy, and it has not been cheap.”

Another challenge was more universal: the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. It was the first time in the history of the organization that the number of students tested declined from the prior year. At this point in time there were 40 member states, territories and federal agencies that made up WIDA and they were all addressing the pandemic in different ways. WIDA worked with each consortium member to enact their decision on testing and provide as much flexibility as possible with respect to testing window timeframes.Image removed.

“Those were our two biggest challenges,” Boals said. “They weren’t easy. There were a lot of growing pains, but we weathered those storms and came out on the other side stronger and better.”

The photo in this section shows Tim Boals, Elizabeth Cranley and several Wisconsin Center for Education Research staff toasting WIDA's move to the University of Wisconsin from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in January 2006.

The next 20 years

As it turns out, the original grant proposal written in 2002 would go on to be a roadmap for the future of WIDA.

“We were awarded the money. But the grant reviewers said things like, ‘This grant is way too ambitious. They're never going to accomplish everything that they are setting out to do,’” Boals said. “I laugh about it now because honestly, there are things in that grant proposal that we still haven't gotten to 20 years later.”

When asked about what the next 20 years of WIDA would bring, people in leadership envision many things. Here’s some of what they said:

The next 20 years of WIDA will include a development of resources for bilingual classrooms through the WIDA Español program. They will include an improved effort at reaching all educators, with a special emphasis on content area teachers, helping them in tangible ways in the classroom. They will focus on inclusion through WIDA’s Alternate ACCESS for ELLs which serves learners with significant cognitive disabilities. And along with the assessment, a focus on providing resources to help educators serve those students. The next 20 years will be a continuation of the last 20 years of building a passionate and focused staff who are dedicated to the work. It’ll be about the value of multilingualism and multiculturalism. In the next 20 years, one leader said, WIDA will be known for promoting multilingualism for children.

“We want to stay the course,” Boals said. “We want to continually improve and reiterate those standards, assessments and resources and we want to look for innovation where we can find it."

Boals is speaking to the WIDA values – Innovation, Service, Can Do Philosophy, Collaboration and Social Justice. These values and the WIDA mission have guided the organization through all the challenges and changes over the years, and they continue to guide the vision—to be the most trusted and valued resource in supporting the education of multilingual learners.


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