Producing Assessment-Savvy Educators
The biggest thing going for the education technology industry today is the push toward standards-based assessment. We have watched this gradual change since the late 1980s. Today, everybody is scrambling for ways to create, teach, assess and track the progress of students toward learning standards.
When it finally looked like schools were going to get serious about standards-based assessment, Excelsior Software quickly turned to vocational schools, which have been teaching and tracking standards for many years as a way of learning what works and what d'es not. Putting this technology into mainstream education, however, is a different game altogether. Without traditional grades, teachers have to redefine their jobs, parents fail to make the connection at all and students traditionally meet only minimum standards. The paradoxical question when providing technology tools to teachers has always been: "How do you make it simple enough to learn to use with minimal or no training, and still keep it functional enough to be worth the time to implement?"
A big issue has been getting teachers to use technology. Excelsior has always provided free software to anyone who teaches educators to use computers. Yet, for the last 15 years, we have seen few new teachers graduating from college with any knowledge of how to put together an assessment method for their curriculum and their classroom, let alone how to use a program designed to assist with this task. I am always shocked when student teachers are still required to turn in their paper gradebooks for evaluation.
We need to get the colleges of education to start producing assessment-savvy educators. Providing these skills after they enter the work force is expensive and time-consuming. Teaching young educators to create a spreadsheet d'es little to help them meet the plethora of data-tracking tasks, including multilevel grading, standards, discipline, attendance, regrading, anecdotal records and IEP requirements, which they will be required to do daily or in real time. And real time is where they need to be.
The latest computers and networks, as well as the Internet, have dictated that information be available in real time. The problem is you can't report in real time what you don't have. Teachers must participate, but getting them to do so is difficult. Gone is the need for quarters, semesters and other periods of grading, which were put in place to stop and assess where students were so changes could be implemented if needed. Yet, these are so ingrained in the mindset of schools that they won't go away easily. When assessment is in real time, i.e. day to day, then changes are as well. Schools know that, but they are stuck doing what they already know how to do. But the curious thing about real-time information is who wants to see it. The answer may surprise you.
Back in the early '90s Excelsior, IBM and Ameritech teamed up to provide home access to real-time student progress via teachers' gradebooks. Parents wanted to know how their kids were doing in school. Students used IBM PCs at school and at home with direct ISDN lines. The gradebook and home-viewing software was Excelsior's. The experiment was expensive, but Excelsior's Pinnacle System was based on valuable knowledge gleaned from that pilot installation near Chicago, Ill.
Almost every school and teacher now uses computers. The problem is that while keeping grades on a computer is commonplace, it's not often required. The Internet promises to provide real-time information to parents. Schools are talking with teachers about how often grades have to be entered and with parents about how often they can expect to see updates. Dealing with these issues indicates that schools and communities are coming together to look at education in a new light, with technology as a true solution to better education. The big surprise is students are benefiting.
The Chicago pilot study showed that the people checking grades every day were not parents; they were students. And the same is true today. While Excelsior has been providing parents with information via the Internet for five years, we know students check their progress tenfold over parents. That fact alone has caused some schools to increase overall achievement by one letter grade and to reduce ineligible athletes by 98 percent. The only change attributed directly to parent involvement is probably the increase in average daily attendance.
Promises to Education
The future of education is promising. The Internet, while not a fix-all solution, is creating a new awareness that should ultimately help schools adopt new concepts of how technology can benefit the educational process. I think schools have finished playing with technology toys and are ready to start working with technology tools. Schools are now seeing that technology has to be a useful tool and people have to be properly trained in its use, or it will be misused and wasted. That training takes time and money, as well as a dedication and willingness to make a change. Standards and curriculum will find their place in the next few years, and the technology toys of the past will form the future tools of education.
While Excelsior has been working on a portion of the assessment and reporting technology, others have been focusing on the instructional and administrative technology. The recent push toward integrating these technologies and solutions to meet schools' needs holds great promise. The recent willingness of companies to set profits and competition aside and do what is best for the market as a whole also has great promise. The ability of schools to see beyond the empty claims of panacean solutions shows a huge promise in itself. But promises need to be kept and results need to be real.
We all have promises to make to education. Schools and communities need to promise they will continue to believe change is both possible and worthwhile, even though it might be a little painful. They must promise to resist standing still with fear and take the steps needed to finally put technology to work. They must buy the computers, software, networks and personnel to maintain them. It's also important that they provide the proper training for teachers and principals, so their professional skills can combine with the technology at an optimum level. They must put education first in the community and show families how to get involved in the process of teaching, learning and meeting standards. Most teachers already show a willingness to accept the intrusion of technology and embrace the bumps in the road while doing some things differently in the classroom.
Teacher colleges and universities need to promise they will find out what teaching skills are needed. They must prepare teachers for the delivery of real-time information, and to deliver both traditional and standards-based education. They must also require teachers to be comfortable with technology as a real tool. In addition, education technology companies must promise they will take time to understand the needs that exist in classrooms. Together, we all must do our best to help make schools the best they can be.
Excelsior Software Inc.
This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.