Problem: Bradley K. Barrett, superintendent of the Gilbert (Ariz.) Public Schools, knew two things when he looked at how his district's students met the state standards. He knew he wanted to improve student performance and he knew his district needed help getting there.
Barrett wanted to give his teachers a testing tool that could help them make decisions on which students needed extra help on a particular standard, and which students had already mastered certain concepts. He wanted a system that could help Gilbert's teachers sequence their instruction during the school year so all the state's main standards were taught before its minor ones.
Solution: In the summer of 2004, Barrett found the help he wanted. Gilbert Public Schools entered a contract with Tungsten Learning, a division of Edison Schools. Tungsten provided the school district with a computer-based testing, benchmarking and assessment tool. With this help, Barrett is able to report progress on his main goal, improving student achievement.
Using the tool, students take assessment tests online and receive reports minutes later analyzing their results. Tungsten's benchmark tests reveal standards requirements that might otherwise have slipped through the regular curriculum's cracks.
"There have been various concepts that the kids were exposed to on benchmark testing--particular diagrams or graphs--that we had never heard of," says Barrett. "These problems were not in the textbooks. The math coordinators got together and realized that had the problems not been on the benchmark tests, they would not have been taught." With the help of the Tungsten program, the teachers have plenty of time to catch problems like those and prepare the students well in advance of the high-stakes Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards tests.
Hoping for the Best
Before using Tungsten, teachers would have to just execute their lesson plans and hope for the best on the high-stakes tests, says Scott Drossos, Tungsten's President. "Districts are looking for a higher likelihood of success. We do regression work with the data, provide correlations and can show with a high degree of accuracy where kids are likely to finish," says Drossos. "When a child goes in to take a high-stakes test, teachers [using our system] already know the outcome. That makes them feel more confident about where they are spending time on getting the job done."
Though Tungsten's association with Edison might sour some districts on its tech offerings, Barrett had long admired Edison's culture of standards and accountability. He felt the backbone of this achievement was the company's technology-based testing, so when the opportunity to implement this package without giving up control of schools to Edison presented itself, he was ready.
Real-life Problem Solving
The Edison benefit is that Tungsten's offerings have been field-tested in actual schools, says Drossos. "We tend to solve our problems at the classroom level and work out toward the district. That's how we're different from [competitors]."
Tungsten is not just an assessment software company, explains Drossos. For a per-student fee it also places servers in the schools that use each school's Local Area Network to facilitate fast, reliable test taking for assessment purposes. For its first year in the Gilbert schools, Tungsten's fee amounted to a bit less than $300,000 for 25 K-6 schools, about 13,000 students.
Tungsten's approach has certainly brought results for Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 in Colorado Springs. It went from middle-of-the-pack to No. 1 across all state sub-groups within a few years of using Tungsten.
In the Gilbert district--already one of the highest-performing districts in Arizona--Barrett is confident the system has already made a big difference in the culture. "Tungsten has turned us into a standards-based instructional machine," he says. "We know what we should be teaching, whether we have taught it and whether the kids have learned it so that we can intervene prior to the high-stakes testing. Tungsten has changed our whole culture of teaching and learning."
Aaron Dalton is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.