Elementary Schools : The Time Is Now


Early diagnosis of academic deficits is pivotal to keeping students from falling irretrievablybehind. Formative assessment technology gives teachers the tools to respond.

Elementary Schools : The Time Is NowDURING A HOLIDAY VISIT LAST WINTER, myaunt asked, "What exactly do you do?" As I explained the workthe State Educational Technology Directors Association(SETDA) does to highlight the power of technologyin education, she quickly commented, "I don't get it-- why is technology so important in education? We all learnedwithout it. Is it because of all those video games kids play?"

Remaining calm, I started my answer by reflecting on my first year of teaching. As a new teacher, I was driven to help each and every student, and the only way I could do that was to look at the work of each child in my class. I arrived at school early, left late, and still went home toting canvas bags of papers and assessments to go over. Armed with handwritten running records, paper copies of quizzes, and an old green gradebook, I did my best to prepare lessons suited for each student, but as a novice teacher with analog tools and minimal training, I struggled.

Today, life in technology-rich schools is different-- better-- for teachers. Handheld devices for reading assessment, electronic response systems, software programs for assessing and grading, and skills-based online resources provide teachers with an abundance of tools for evaluating students, producing information teachers can then respond to with instruction tailored to the needs of each student. With individualized instruction, students with different learning styles and rates can succeed in the same classroom. At-risk students, who would probably drop out of school, stay and graduate.

It's well documented that success in elementary school is a good indicator of academic success down the line. Conversely, students who fall behind in their early school years are vulnerable to ending up as high school dropouts. And if academic issues aren't addressed promptly, they only intensify over time. According to a February 2006 fact sheet on adolescent literacy from the Alliance for Excellence in Education, approximately 8 million students in grades 4 to 12 struggle to read at grade level, and a full 70 percent of US middle and high school students require additional instructional support to meet their learning needs. Not a moment can be lost waiting for standardized test scores or quarterly assessments to gauge student progress, especially for elementary- level students learning to read and acquire basic math skills. Teachers must assess students regularly to check for comprehension so that they can individualize instruction promptly.

States throughout the country are now offering formative assessment tools to help teachers apprehend students' learning difficulties early on. Arizona, for example, offers an item bank located within its IDEAL web portal (Integrated Data to Enhance Arizona's Learning). Pre- and postassessments and performance-objective snapshots are available to all teachers in the state.

Similarly, Alaska has developed a bank of formative assessments aligned to the state's grade-level expectations in math, reading, and writing for grades 3 to 10. The assessments are intended for use by all Alaska teachers to guide them in differentiating classroom instruction. And last fall, the Pennsylvania Department of Education launched the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System Performance, which empowers the state's educators with student progress and achievement data so they can make informed instructional decisions.

Technology is impacting specific content-area assessments as well. For reading, many states and districts use the formal Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills to assess reading progress and help individualize instruction. DIBELS is now available through handheld devices, which enable teachers to quickly assess students and gather student, group, and class data instantly. Scores are delivered in real time, and after a button is pushed to sync the device, data is transferred to a secure web platform that provides tools for analysis and data-driven instructional decision-making. In addition, teachers, principals, and administrators can access a range of easy-to-read reports designed to deliver the data views educators need to track progress and understand what resources and strategies are working best to improve student outcomes.

Not a moment can be lost waiting for standardizedtest scores or quarterly assessments to gauge student progress.

In Seminole County, FL, the school district purchased handheld units to conduct DIBELS reading assessments in 2004. "We are able to serve every student on his or her level," says Debbie Warner, coordinator of elementary reading and curriculum for Florida's Seminole County Public Schools. "Our benchmark students receive accelerated materials. They are on the computer, researching planets, and then writing stories about imaginary planets. These are activities they would never be able to do if teachers were not individualizing and differentiating instruction based on assessment data."

This focused system of data collection, analysis, and intervention has helped the entire Seminole County school district earn five straight overall "A" rankings from the Florida Department of Education.

Assessment is a first step. Once the data is in their hands, educators need to make it work to the benefit of their students. Districts are working to provide teachers with the tools needed to do just that. St. Mary Parish School Board in Louisiana has found that the combination of an online formative assessment tool and online, standards-based resources has boosted student student's area of deficiency and then go immediately into the online database (NetTrekker d.i.) and quickly find supporting resources at the child's own learning level.

At Lemon Grove School District in San Diego County, formative assessment has had demonstrable impact on achievement. The district moved its six elementary schools from "underperforming" to "high-performing" through school reform that includes ubiquitous access to technology. Throwing off an old paper-based data system for a new electronic one was key. The new system offers cross-tab options, historical data, and custom data views, affording the district's educators more information on theirstudents in more depth than ever before.

Another example of higher student achievement fueled by technology-based formative assessment is found in Virginia. In 2002, the state launched the Algebra Readiness Initiative in an effort to tackle the subject matter most responsible for student dropouts. The goal of the program is to identify and assist kids who are at risk for not passing ninth-grade algebra. A diagnostic math test given at the beginning of the year indicates which students need instructional intervention and where they need it most. The students receive state-funded math tutoring throughout the school year and are retested in the spring to see what progress they've made.

How effective is the program? Since its launch, Virginia has seen a 17-point gain in the statewide end-of-course passing rate for Algebra I students: from 75 percent in 2001-02 to 92 percent in 2006-07.

What's new in Kansas, New York, Oregon, and Washington

As is true of any issue, to apprehend academic deficits, early diagnosis is key. Twenty-first-century technology tools can have a major role in accomplishing this by helping with data collection, analysis, and classroom intervention. The days of canvas bags filled with paper quizzes and thick gradebooks are fading. As teachers embrace the use of technology tools to conduct ongoing assessments, more students will have opportunities to achieve through data-driven decision-making.

Christine Fox is director of professional development andresearch for SETDA.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.