From data tracking, analysis, and reporting tools, to sophisticated computerized assessments, to test-prep programs and skills-building software, technology will play a key role in helping schools meet tough new accountability standards contained in the pending Elementary and Secondary Education Act, experts told eSchool News in the days following the bill’s passage.

The final version of the legislation, expected to be signed into law by President Bush next week, authorizes $26.5 billion for elementary and secondary education in 2002, about $8 billion more than last year. It passed in the Senate Dec. 18 by a vote of 87-10 and in the House Dec. 13 by a vote of 381-41.

The bill makes important changes to accountability standards by focusing on narrowing the achievement gap, while allowing states to continue to develop their own assessments. School districts would be required to submit annual “report cards” based on state standards. Schools with continuously low scores would be required to provide supplemental services such as tutoring, after school services, and summer programs.

In addition, states would be required to administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress every other year in both the fourth and eighth grades. These tests would allow parents to compare how their children’s school is progressing in relation to others locally and nationally, but would not be used to determine the progress of individual students or have any impact on how federal funds are distributed.

“These tests will simply act as a tool for parents to evaluate the performance of their child’s school against others in the nation,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., in a statement to the press.

Education leaders agree the new measures will force them to track and analyze student performance data more carefully than ever, and technology will play an important role in the process.

“The accountability sections of [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] will not only require schools to perform better instructionally, but to document how and to what extent they are doing so,” said Raymond Yeagley, superintendent of the Rochester, N.H., Public Schools.

“Data-driven decision making has been the norm in the sciences for more than a century,” Yeagley continued. “You wouldn’t want a surgeon selecting a particular procedure for your illness because he or she had heard that a hospital down the road had a couple of success stories.” But that’s exactly how schools make many of their decisions now, he said.

“To generate these data … the district will have to rely on technology and, more importantly, will need to have someone on staff with enough technical knowledge to extract the data from their original sources, convert them to a format readable by the analysis tool, and assure that they don’t become contaminated in the conversion process,” he said.

Yeagley said he believes the new accountability requirements will demand that schools subject their data to at least a rudimentary statistical analysis, and “that can’t be done effectively without technology.”

A number of technologies exist to help educators make data-driven decisions, and school leaders interested in keeping track of relevant student information can choose from several avenues, depending on funds and staffing.

For instance, they can opt to pay for outside companies to do their data analysis, or they can hire consultants to help them set up their own in-house analysis. Larger districts might opt to design their own data warehouses and analysis tools that are maintained by an IT department. And some districts, like Rochester, might opt to use off-the-shelf products to perform their own data analysis.

But the interpretation of collected data is still a challenge for many school districts. Products aimed at addressing this challenge do exist, such as the one developed by the University of California at Los Angeles’ Center for Research in Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education.

This product, known as Quality School Portfolio (QSP), soon will be made available to every school district in the nation at no cost. A companion product that will be web-based will permit online analysis and reporting of any kind of data a school can collect.

According to Yeagley, along with collecting and analyzing data, schools will need to use technology to communicate to staff members, parents, elected officials, and other stakeholders about what the data really mean and their implications for improving education.

“The use of technology as a communication tool will, in my opinion, be as important in supporting educational reform as … its use for statistical analysis,” he said.

Another way technology will play a key role in helping schools meet the new accountability standards is through the development of computerized assessment tools to measure students’ gaps in learning.

One such tool, known as Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, was developed by the Portland, Oregon-based Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). It’s a program that dynamically creates an individualized test that can adapt to the skill level of every single child, based on where he or she exists on the learning continuum.

“We can pinpoint what students are skilled at and where they have some difficulty. The teacher can then go back the very next day and tailor instruction accordingly,” said Kathryn Stetson, a client service representative for NWEA.

“We have definitely seen an increased interest in [MAP] in light of the political atmosphere,” Stetson added. “With this product, you can actually report state standards back to the state and show how a whole district, one grade level, one classroom, or one individual student is doing on a particular subject.”

NWEA currently works with 640 districts across the United States, including some 35 districts in Idaho, where it is preparing to sign a contract for the entire state. A statewide exit exam is scheduled to roll out in Idaho in the spring.

The demands of the new education bill will force many districts to adopt new approaches toward guiding student instruction, school leaders agree. But technology is still only a tool.

“Schools will no longer be able to have their teachers sit down in isolation with a pencil and paper to chart the right and wrong responses of their students on a standardized test,” Yeagley concluded. But “how much the technology will help with assessment and accountability will depend largely on how well [school] leaders understand data use.”

Links:

Rochester Public Schools
http://www.rochesterschools.com

Center for Research in Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing
http://cresst96.cse.ucla.edu/index.htm

Northwest Evaluation Association
http://www.nwea.org