Self-Examination

Self-Examination

New law means more technology for new tests

For years, fifth-graders in the Romulus (Mich.) Community School District scored below state averages on the Michigan Educational Assessment standardized tests in science. Only 31 percent of fifth graders were proficient in science while the statewide average for proficiency was more than 40 percent.

In the summer of 1998, the district compiled a science curriculum that emphasized incorporating language arts and math. And instead of using a textbook approach to teaching, teachers created lessons that were more "inquiry/science-kit" driven, says Patricia Adams, K-6 science coordinator in Romulus. The district also implemented Compass Learning software, aligned it with the district's curriculum in all grades and content areas, and reinforced such topics as butterflies, for example, using technology. Students now could take digital pictures of butterflies, create a slide show and write about the colorful insects.

Fast forward to the spring of 2001. Fifth graders tested above the state average, with 47 percent testing at proficient level, surpassing the statewide average of 41 percent.

In York County, Va., only 49 percent of Bruton High School Algebra I students taking the state's Standards of Learning test in 1999 were at "proficient" level, below the state average of 56 percent. While students improved the next year, with 51 percent proficient, the state average zoomed up to 65 percent, leaving the school's students even further behind.

Practice helps

So, administrators met with Riverdeep company officials and asked the teachers if they could change their teaching methods and integrate them with Riverdeep software. Using sample tests every week, teachers found student strengths and weaknesses, and from there, helped weaker students practice problems in lab. On the 2001 SOL test, Algebra I students were well above the state average-more than 90 percent of the students were proficient, while the state average was more than 70 percent.

These are just two examples of how administrators helped students complete a schoolroom 180?, in large part, using technology.

And these are just two examples of what the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act: No Child Left Behind law, designed to close the achievement gap between minority/disadvantaged students from others, wants from districts across the nation.

"We're not saying this because it sounds good," says U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. "This is an expectation that we could educate 100 percent of our children."

Paige himself grew up in Monticello, Miss., with a teacher as a mother and a school principal as a father. "I had two schools growing up," Paige says. "One school I went to every morning, and the school I came home to every night. ... Reading and doing your homework was part of my daily life ... Education was not a part of life-It was life."

And while he learned in a segregated school system with little or no resources, such as textbooks and proper equipment, he had caring teachers. "We had people who had a level of expectation of us that was high," Paige says. "We had parents, teachers and communities that had a zero tolerance idea about learning."

Paige adds that while student growth is expected in a year, the main purpose of the law is to close the achievement gap among different students, to see students reading at their grade level by the end of third grade and to increase the number of disadvantaged and minority students attending and graduating from college.

While district administrators are still dissecting and devising plans to meet the new requirements, educators and vendors across the nation are noting the growing importance of technology.

Some studies show that appropriate use of technology increases student achievement. A study released this May marks the first time that a long-term statewide learning technology program has been assessed for its effectiveness. It revealed the technology use led directly to significant gains in math, reading and language arts skills in West Virginia, according to the Milken Family Foundation. Now, educators will need technology more than ever-through software programs to help students meet rising academic demands, through online professional development to give teachers more flexibility to learn and use technology, and through electronic assessments for teachers to keep track of the plethora of data and more quickly nip a student's academic weakness in the bud.

"It's really the engine that drives the bill," says John Bailey, director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education. "It's needed for accountability, for decision-making, for help with improving instruction, to inform parents about student performance, and to help bring in resources to students in rural areas."

The new federal law "accelerates and exaggerates" what has been underway for several years, says Mark Schneiderman, director of education policy for the Software & Information Industry Association. Technology can help address not only assessment needs, but it can help teachers deliver instruction. "No Child Left Behind is raising the stakes, causing schools and districts to hopefully take a look at their needs and consider how they're spending their resources," he says.

Thomas Greaves, vice president for educational partnerships with PLATO NetSchools, says teachers have an incredible amount of work to juggle already. He estimates that classroom teachers who instruct five to seven periods a day with 30 students each period and who have to meet 30 state-mandated objectives in each class, are responsible for 4,500 individual standards so students reach the benchmarks.

"This is like balancing a checkbook that has 4,500 checks on a weekly basis. It is too hard to do. It is impossible to manage on a manual basis," Greaves says. "Just managing it requires technology."

Paige adds that technology is the tool that will properly increase the effectiveness of instruction.

"We know from research that students are more engaged through technological" programs, he says.

Biggest change Since the 1950s

According to those in the industry, Greaves says, the new law, which in part requires annual testing of students from grades 3-8 in reading and math, is considered a "good law." Instead of simply focusing on how many classrooms nationwide are "wired" and how many have access to the Internet, the question now is, how well are students doing, he says. "I believe this law is a powerful mechanism of change."

A irksome plan

Under the law, Bailey says every school district has to compile a school performance plan to ensure every child across every set of demographics is proficient in subjects by a certain date, starting in the year 2005-06. If a school or class is not progressing adequately, parents will get more involved, Bailey says. More federal funds will be made available to schools to offer to parents to use for tutors or sending their children to after-school learning centers. Parents also can use public school choice and relocate their children in struggling schools to another school in the district or a nearby district. It would also lower class sizes in the struggling school and, in turn, possibly benefit the struggling school's students.

If that doesn't work, Bailey says, the state would then go in and restructure the school.

But that type of stress on educators and students is part of what opponents, such as Alfie Kohn, a well-known education critic and author of The Schools Our Children Deserve, find irritating. Kohn says the law is "indeed" historic and should be named: "No Child Left Untested."

"Never before has the power of local school districts been usurped by the federal government to this extent," he says. "And never before has every state been required to test every student every year-an acceleration of the current testing fad that already has turned many of our schools into glorified test-prep centers."

Kohn adds that mandatory testing demands that all children learn and progress at the same pace, potentially causing many students to feel like "failures" because all children do not progress at even rates, and it further proves how tests would determine the curriculum.

But Paige and Bailey disagree with his idea.

"These people suffer from the ... bigotry of low expectation," Paige says. "It's a bigoted idea that students cannot achieve. The presently low-achieving students can achieve. I have walked the walk. I have walked the hallways of these schools [in Houston, Tex.] and I've looked into the eyes of these children. I've witnessed them soar like eagles."

Bailey says that technology offers tailor-made options to cater to individual student needs. It also gives teachers more flexibility so students who need extra help on a problem will get it via computer programs without taking up too much class time. And assessments throughout the school year, such as online assessments that could be done weekly, give teachers vital information about different student weaknesses and learning styles at various points throughout an academic year. As far as the potential to rob creativity in lessons, Bailey says, teachers are responsible for preserving creativity. English teachers, for example, could have students act out literature in plays. "They can teach the basic concept skills in creative ways," Bailey says. "You don't have to do either/or. You could do both."

Technology help

A few years ago, Algebra I students in York County, Va., were struggling.

Valerie A. Taylor, assistant superintendent of instruction for York County schools, says while Algebra I students were showing slight improvement in past years, they were still well below the state average. So when teachers started using Riverdeep's Destination Math software, they could diagnose specific student difficulties, individualize instruction and track student progress.

"The teachers were still directing instruction, and then they were taking pieces of the software that kids would practice in lab," Taylor says. "Riverdeep was a tool. The key to success was teachers redesigning the instruction."

Teachers participated in conferences where they learned how to use the products. They went to seminars for hands-on learning lessons. They worked as teams to redesign lessons and ensure all teachers were teaching the same material in a specific time frame. It was all aligned with the division's curriculum, which was aligned to the state's Standards of Learning, Taylor says.

Students who need extra help on a concept will stay in lab or after school. "In terms of No Child Left Behind, the law certainly has provisions for adequate progress," Taylor says. "Since 1998, York County has been working to bring students up to graduation requirements. With [the new law], the federal government is looking at subgroups ... and the growth rate in those subgroups. We'll study the SOL scores and make any necessary changes. We've spent five years integrating technology into the classroom. So, we're on the right track. If our test scores indicate we need to make changes, we'll make them." In using Riverdeep, the curriculum is aligned to the state standards and benchmarks, and teachers will be organized around specific lesson and unit plans, says Riverdeep Director Gail Pierson. They have an organized curriculum throughout the year.

A series of questions and tests can be delivered at any time so students can assess themselves and immediately learn an objective that is not understood by a student, Pierson says. Instead of taking up valuable teacher time, a student could work through his or her problems via a computer, Pierson says.

Making students shine.

High-risk students in Romulus, Mich., were not scoring high in their high-stakes test, so administrators knew change was imminent.

"We have been at the bottom with high-risk students in a high-needs district with Michigan's high-stakes test," Patricia Adams says. "So we took our curriculum and asked, How do we get kids to improve on it and improve the benchmarks? So you know these are the standards and then you build your curriculum around it. This started years ago, and we have gotten better to align our curriculum. ...We put in steps to lead up to having kids be proficient (in fourth and fifth grades). We build on it and layer it. And we provide some professional development and pick the support materials that help teachers. All of our teachers are trained in cooperative learning and mastery learning."

Tom Dolan, K-12 curriculum director at Romulus, says his district aligned the curriculum electronically in an integrated learning system to improve learning. Four content administrators took the "massive Michigan curriculum" and worked with grade level teacher teams to align the state's benchmarks to specific grades. "Not all schools do that in the state because it takes a tremendous amount of energy," Dolan says.

Administrators then aligned Compass Learning materials to the curriculum, Dolan says. "This allows teachers to individualize and enrich the education in each classroom," he says. "Compass Learning would be a significant supplement to the teaching of mastery and collaboration in our schools." In each of the six elementary schools in the district, there are two Compass Learning labs with 32 computers in each. And five computers are in each classroom.

Sloane O'Neal, vice president of Compass Learning, adds that the new law is calling on districts to "pay attention to the research in the industry on curriculum" and note what works for student achievement. "They are saying this is about a process in all of education," O'Neal says. "It's not just about products."

But Paige points out that there is no "magic bullet" from any one company. "Many of them have some part of the solution," he says. "But there is no single solution."

What keeps teachers awake?

While $700 million is supposed to be available to schools nationwide every year for educational technology under the new law, along with an additional $950 million for the reading program, schools will receive federal funds based on formulas that are based in part on income levels. And Congress has authorized $237.5 million for fiscal year 2002 to train teachers in technology. The federal funds supply 7 percent of the per pupil costs of spending.

Paige says the problem is not so much to add equipment but to develop a more efficient use of the equipment already in schools.

"We need a big focus on teacher training, administrator training," Paige says. "My own district in Houston (where he served as superintendent), computers are looking like trophies" and not being used, he says.

Bailey advises that schools think about their biggest need.

"What is waking up their teachers at three o'clock in the morning?" Bailey says. "That becomes their D-day issue."

Bailey says one of the biggest concerns for teachers is the time between when assessment tests are given and when the results are returned. Some schools in Indiana have to wait six weeks before they get test results. "That's 43 instructional days you are losing," he says. "The whole purpose of the assessment movement is to better inform the teachers of where students are struggling. And you can't do that if it takes 43 days to get the results. And if that's the big problem teachers are finding, it's a wonderful opportunity to use online assessments which delivers answers almost instantaneously."And this is what the law is about, Bailey says.

"One very positive point of No Child Left Behind, as we've always said, is that the most important job is integrating technology into the curriculum," Bailey adds. "This is finally integrating technology with the curriculum."

Paige adds that the law, with bipartisan support, will likely be around for years, even when President Bush leaves office. "We as Americans," Paige says, "need to elevate our educational performance."

Angela Pascopella, apascopella@edmediagroup.com, is features editor.


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