More than 360 educational technology vendors convened on the exhibition floor of the Austin Convention Center for the opening day of the 25th annual Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) meeting.

Given the heavy emphasis placed on testing and accountability in the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), assessment has emerged as a major theme at this year’s conference. One testing system that stood out was Harcourt’s Stanford Learning First. The multiple-choice system first takes into account the state’s individual standards, and then tailors a test to suit the specific needs of the state. According to Harcourt, most other companies typically develop one standardized test and use it as the basis for later state adaptations.

The online testing system allows educators to conduct both web- and paper-based testing, the results of which are easily tracked via the company’s web site. Perhaps the most interesting element of Stanford Learning First is its built-in formative component. Answers to questions on the test are written using what Harcourt calls an Answer-Choice (Distractor) system. The system posits four answers to any given multiple-choice question, one of which is right, the others are wrong. Every Distractor answer represents a typical error. Teachers can then track the typical errors made by students and teach to address those deficiencies.

Stanford Learning First tests are now being administered in six states, including Texas. The system currently tests only for reading and math in the third through eighth grades. But Harcourt hopes to take the program much farther. It is developing the system to test for other subjects and, according to one Harcourt representative, the company hopes to “eventually design 51 unique tests–one developed to the standards of each state and the District of Columbia.”

Companies like Inspiration Software, Scholastic, Sleek Software Corp., Texas Instruments, Qwizdom, and many others also featured programs designed to improve achievement on standardized assessments for K-12 students.

Earlier in the day, the TCEA conference began with a frenetic keynote address from motivational speaker Ron Clark. Clark, winner of the 2001 Disney Teacher of the Year award and many other honors, including Oprah Winfrey’s first-ever “Phenomenal Man” award, told a standing-room only auditorium in the Austin Convention Center his stories of working with problem children in North Carolina, Harlem, and around the world. Clark, a man with a passion for travel and adventure, told educators that his “greatest adventures happened right within the four walls of the classroom.”

The speech was preceded by videotaped testimonials from students whose lives Clark had affected. Most were children with severe behavioral problems whom Clark worked with in Harlem. Some of them wept as they spoke of how Clark changed their lives. Those images were interspersed among images of Clark speaking with Oprah and Rosie O’Donnell, as well as images of him dancing and jumping “double Dutch” rope with his students.

A large part of Clark’s message expanded on the rules laid down in his book, The Essential 55, a guide for students that reads like Cliffs Notes for the social contract. “Kids like structure. I remember in college, people were always saying ‘Never have any more than five rules’–that’s such crap!” he said.

Clark believes that children want to know how you want them to behave. “But they also want to know that you respect them,” he said.

Clark said children–especially those understood to be problem children–internalize and repeat bad behavior by being judged to be “bad kids” by both peers and adults.

“A lot of these kids don’t have a good family life at home,” Clark said while standing on top of a chair. Stepping down, he said “I try and make my classroom a family; I try and make the schools I teach in a family.”

Clark strongly urged the audience that demonstrating passion in teaching is the best way they can reach students. “Now, I know that most of you people won’t run around acting like me,” Clark said, seamlessly slipping into a dance move.

“This conference is about technology,” he said in his only direct mention of the TCEA conference theme. “If you teach it with passion [and with respect and consistency], then your students will eventually respond.”

Audience members certainly responded to Clark.

“I saw a lot of tears,” said Kaye Eskue, a teacher from Texas who attended the speech. “He has a lot of love for what he does. His message, I think, was that you have to incorporate that love into your teaching.”

Another attendee described Clark as “a force of nature that can’t be contained.”

Links: SN Conference Correspondents’ TCEA session reviews