Continuous ("formative") assessment, the integration of assessment and instructional management, and the explosion of multilingual instructional software were some of the key themes that stood out among exhibitors at the 25th annual Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC), held Jan. 26-28 in Orlando.

"Formative assessment" was truly the catchphrase at this year’s show, as everywhere conference attendees went in the 500-company exhibit hall, these words could be heard. Vendors using the phrase were referring to software that can assess students’ understanding of key concepts during the course of the school year, allowing teachers to adjust their instruction accordingly or prescribe extra help for students who need it, before the end of the school year–when it’s too late.

Such software holds the key to helping schools meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) goals and ensuring that all students are learning the concepts they need to know for federally mandated end-of-year exams, many people believe. And several companies have stepped up to fill this need for schools: At least two companies–PLATO Learning and Software Technology Inc. (STI)–were promoting white papers they had published that explain the importance of formative assessment, and at least a dozen others demonstrated software solutions that can provide it.

PLATO Learning’s PLATO Assessment, for example, enables teachers to perform periodic, standards-based assessment of students, with results available for instant analysis at the student, classroom, school, and district levels. The program enables teachers to administer two types of tests: fixed benchmark tests that are correlated with national and state standards for every state, or customized exams created from an item bank of 180,000 questions aligned with each state’s standards. Both options are geared toward students in grades 2-11.

The core of the product comes from Lightspan’s EduTest solution, which PLATO acquired when it purchased Lightspan in 2003. The company has been making improvements to the product ever since, and the most complete version–in which teachers can view class and individual student strengths, as well as moderate and high-need areas of focus–has been available since August.

Besides more robust reporting features, the product also offers flexible test delivery options: Teachers can administer the tests online or on paper, and if they give paper-based exams, they can enter the answers online by hand or scan them into the system via computer.

The software’s reporting feature has the ability to show each question of an exam, along with the percentage of students who chose each response. Teachers also can drill down to see how students answered each test item. District officials can use the software to view strengths and needs by district or school, and educators can get a progress chart for each content strand throughout the year, so they can fine-tune the order or pace of their curriculum as necessary.

ThinkLink Learning, a private, for-profit company that sprung from Vanderbilt University in 2000, demonstrated an online formative assessment solution that is one of the few existing products to tackle "predictive assessment" (Harcourt Achieve’s Achieve It! and SchoolNet Inc.‘s Account are among the others). This means the software takes assessment results and tries to predict how close students are to meeting state achievement standards–and how close schools are to meeting their AYP goals.

 

 

FETC 2005

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  • Like PLATO’s product, ThinkLink’s software–called Predictive Assessment System for Students, or P.A.S.S.–allows teachers to give periodic, benchmark-based assessments correlated with state standards, or teachers can or create their own assessments using an item bank of questions linked to these standards. The system is completely web-based and is hosted on ThinkLink’s servers. Versions currently exist for schools in Alabama, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee, and West Virginia, but the company says it will work with districts in other states to create a version that meets their needs, too.

    P.A.S.S. uses color-coded graphs, charts, and numeric indicators to report on the progress of students, schools, or entire districts toward state-prescribed performance goals. For instance, a sample class summary report for teachers appears as a series of multicolored bars, one for each content strand to be taught. Each bar indicates the percentage of students who are mastering that particular topic (in green), who show partial mastery (in yellow), and who are in need of major intervention (in red). The teacher can click on the topic to get a report on how individual students are faring–or, by simply looking at the original bar graph, the teacher might realize he or she needs to go back and cover the topic again if only a sliver of the bar for that topic is green.

     

    Another formative assessment program, STI’s STIAssessment, contains an item bank of questions that are correlated with the standards of the 13 states in which STI currently sells the product, but product manager Coy Travers said the software will incorporate every state’s standards by the next school year. As with the other products already mentioned, teachers can build assessments either manually or automatically for whatever content strand they want to test.

    STI’s program has the added advantage of working as either a completely stand-alone product or an integrated component of the company’s Student Information System software. Travers said the company is working with third-party content providers to add an instructional management component, too–so users will be able to see not only which skills are lacking, but also what resources (software, textbooks, etc.) exist within the district that correlate with the skills that need to be learned.

    Integrated instructional management

    In fact, the addition of an instructional management component to existing assessment and data management solutions was another trend that emerged at FETC.

    SchoolNet announced at the conference that it has teamed up with Microsoft Corp. to launch SchoolNet Assign, an instructional management application based on Microsoft Class Server 4.0 technology. The product integrates with SchoolNet’s assessment and data analysis software (or a school system’s existing programs) to pinpoint and deliver appropriate resources that target students’ specific areas of need.

    SchoolNet Assign will use Class Server 4.0–a brand-new version of Microsoft’s Class Server instructional content delivery system–to deliver, via the internet, individualized lessons and assessments that are aligned with local curriculum standards. Available beginning in February, Class Server 4.0 takes advantage of Microsoft’s SharePoint technology to create a single sign-on portal through which teachers and students can access information and assignments from different systems without having to open up multiple applications. Version 4.0 now also works on Macintosh computers, Microsoft said.

    In another example of this trend, PLATO Assessment, which currently exists as a stand-alone program, is being integrated into the company’s newest solution, PLATO Teaching and Learning Enterprise (PTLE), which will combine formative assessment with instructional management to prescribe either PLATO Learning software or a district’s own proprietary content to address the gaps in students’ understanding. A beta version of PTLE was just released in January, and the company has targeted the full release of the software for the 2005-06 school year.

    Also, Sagebrush Corp. said it is expanding its Analytics data-analysis software to include applications that can help guide and manage instruction. Sagebrush is adding a tool for teachers to create Academic Improvement Plans (AIPs) for each student, for example, based on state assessment data already loaded into the system. (In Florida, any student who scores a 2 or lower–out of 5–on the FCAT exam must have an AIP, said Karen Mortensen, executive education consultant for Sagebrush.)

    Teachers will be able to choose from a list of district-defined intervention strategies or they can add their own, and the software will track the effectiveness of each intervention, so district leaders can identify and share the most effective strategies with other teachers throughout the district. Sagebrush also is adding an Individual Education Plan (IEP) creation tool, tied into each state’s unique forms and requirements, to its Analytics software. The company hopes to have all of these new tools in place by the start of the next school year.

    While each of these companies has added (or is in the process of adding) an instructional management component to its existing assessment or data analysis software, some instructional technology companies already combined these elements in their solutions. One of these companies is ETS Pulliam, which showcased its Instructional Data Management System (IDMS) at FETC. The system is designed to help teachers make curriculum decisions and improvements based on student data culled from standardized tests and interim assessments, the company said.

    IDMS includes formative assessment and student data analysis functionalities, as well as a curriculum and course management component that allows district personnel to align existing instructional materials with state standards; pace and map curriculum; create lesson plans and assessments to support direct instruction in the classroom; and link all of this information to an online grade book and report card. There’s even a parent-communication component, consisting of a web site that gives parents secure access to their children’s grades, with limitations set by district administrators or the child’s teacher. The system generates status reports both in hard-copy format and via eMail, and it provides activities for parents to use with students at home based on their child’s needs. ETS Pulliam says schools in California, Nevada, Arkansas, West Virginia, and Hawaii are using the system, with promising results. In 2002, for example, California’s Paramount High School reportedly had a 34-percent passing rate in mathematics on the California High School Exit Exam. After the first year of implementation, the school’s passing rate in math jumped to 59 percent, the company said.

    Multilingual instructional software

    On the instructional software front, a key trend that emerged at FETC this year was the explosion of software in multiple languages. Curriculum software companies are recognizing the needs of school systems that have large populations of students who are Hispanic or come from other non-English speaking cultures, and they’re finally doing something to address these needs.

    A number of companies–including BrainPOP, CompassLearning, Freedom Scientific, LeapFrog SchoolHouse, and School Zone Publishing–announced new foreign-language versions of their curriculum software products at FETC. Leading the charge, at least in terms of ingenuity, is School Zone Publishing, which now offers bilingual (English/Spanish) versions of two of its elementary-level software titles: Flash Action Addition/Subtraction and Flash Action Multiplication/Division.

    What is unique about School Zone’s offerings is that users can toggle back and forth between the two languages on the fly, without having to log out of one version and log back into the other. This allows students for whom English is a second language to switch back and forth easily between English and Spanish if they get stuck or have trouble understanding either the text or the audio in English.

    "We’ve listened to educators and parents, and they say there is an influx of Spanish-speaking students in their classes but not enough resources designed specifically for these students," said Barbara Peacock, the company’s managing director. "Our hope is that these products will do so well in the marketplace that we’ll be able to redo our whole line of software in both English and Spanish."

    Author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen delivered the FETC 2005 keynote speech. (eSN photo by Dan David)

    Everything from the installation instructions on up appears in both languages, Peacock said, so parents at home can succeed with the software, too. "We have teachers who are asking, ‘Are there any products that parents can use at home with their kids?’" she noted. "We’re taking every step we can to reach the Hispanic community."

    School Zone Publishing hopes to have bilingual versions of at least 12 more software titles in time for the next school year, said Peacock, who added that all of the company’s products now are compatible with Macintosh OS X systems, too.

    BrainPOP, which produces both free and subscription-based animated video clips that educators can stream over the internet to supplement their lessons, said it is working to make its entire library of video clips available in either English or Spanish. The company is recording Spanish soundtracks for each clip and will offer the Spanish versions alongside the English ones. A company spokesman said BrainPOP also is producing new content for students in kindergarten through second grade, and it is working with a third-party standards integration firm to align all its content with each states’ standards. BrainPOP hopes to have its content aligned with the standards of the nation’s largest states by the fall.

    Freedom Scientific’s Learning Systems Group, which makes software for students with learning disabilities and who have difficulty reading, has introduced a new version of its TestTalker software that includes French and Spanish capabilities. Designed to help students with disabilities succeed in taking tests and completing worksheets, TestTalker provides a computerized version of a test, worksheet, or other form that can talk. The software uses the same bimodal approach–simultaneously highlighting words as they are spoken aloud by the computer–that is used in WYNN (What You Need Now), the division’s flagship product. TestTalker 1.2 can recognize French and Spanish documents as well as English.

    LeapFrog SchoolHouse already has Spanish versions of its products, and the company said it soon will introduce Haitian Creole versions, too. Also, CompassLearning’s Odyssey for English Language Learners (Odyssey ELL) now offers optional supplemental language support, so teachers can activate support in students’ native language if they want to. A Spanish version was released last August, and this month Vietnamese, Hmong, and Haitian Creole will be added. Plans are under way to add Mandarin, Russian, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, and Portuguese later this spring.

    Other instructional innovations

    Holt, Rinehart and Winston (HRW) previewed a brand-new technology that will enable users of the company’s online curriculum to record sound online. Called SoundBooth, the technology will be incorporated into Holt’s online Spanish curriculum, Expresate, later this spring and is planned for upcoming revisions of the company’s French and German programs, too.

    SoundBooth will allow students to record and play back their voices while learning vocabulary, practicing pronunciation, or doing speaking activities in their online textbooks. Teachers can then listen to those recordings, evaluate student performance, and remediate or assign grades as appropriate.

    "SoundBooth is a tremendous time-saver for teachers and a valuable tool for students to be self-directed when they practice speaking a foreign language," said Judy Fowler, president of Holt. "Teachers tell us they are thrilled that SoundBooth [will act as] an online recording studio, so they don’t have to collect cassette tapes and cart them around." With SoundBooth, teachers will be able to review their students’ audio recordings at any time and anywhere they have internet access, she added.

    HRW also has added a unique reading and study aid to the online versions of Holt textbooks, including Holt Biology and the entire line of Holt Online Learning social studies curricula. Called Live Ink Reading Help, the technology promises to help students of any reading proficiency increase their comprehension of the material.

    Live Ink Reading Help conveys visual cues to sentence structure through a patented method of reformatting text in a visually friendly, cascading-phrase style that helps students become better readers. Research in reading proficiency among all students using Live Ink, including English-language learners and gifted pupils, reportedly found a significant increase in reading proficiency test scores during a year-long study.

    "This is one of the most exciting developments in reading comprehension of recent years, and now Holt is the first and only textbook publisher to put this research into use," said Fowler. "We believe that Live Ink-enhanced text will significantly improve learning for all students."

    Live Ink was developed by researchers at Walker Reading Technologies Inc., who reviewed 50 years of published research in cognitive neuroscience, linguistics, visual perception, information processing, and reading psychology to develop fundamental algorithms for processing text into a format that is easier for the eyes to scan and for the brain to comprehend. Holt holds the exclusive rights to use the Live Ink technology.

    Users of Holt’s online social studies and biology textbooks can choose the format they prefer–standard, block-paragraph, or the Live Ink format–with a single mouse click, which opens up a browser window with the modified text layout.

    In another unique innovation, Evan-Moor Educational Publishers said it is working on a new product, called Teacherfilebox.com, that will allow educators to choose which individual lessons they want to buy from the company’s entire catalog of print resources. Evan-Moor is taking its 25 years of content and chopping it all up into individual lesson plans, organized–and searchable–by subject and grade level. These will be made available in PDF format online, CEO Bill Evans said, and teachers or curriculum coordinators will be able to download only the specific lessons and files they want for a per-page fee.

     

     

    Evan-Moor also recently relaunched its web site to add more functionality for users. Thanks to a function called "Real Read," educators now can page through many of the company’s books online to see if they want to buy the hard copy. Each book rendered online through the Real Read technology appears exactly as it does in print, page for page. About two-thirds of the company’s catalog of 350 curriculum guides is now available in this format on the Evan-Moor web site, with more books being added each month, Evans said.

    At FETC, Evan-Moor introduced a new software program called "Take It to the Computer: Writing Sentences and Paragraphs," designed to help motivate students to write. With separate, grade-specific offerings for students in grades 1-5, the software uses interactive computer activities and print support materials as tools for building basic writing skills. The program leads students through each stage of the writing process, from prewriting to publishing, and gives students the opportunity to publish their completed work and share it with parents and others via a colorful printed page, an electronic slideshow, or a built-in eMail function. Each grade-specific edition retails for $399 for a classroom version or $599 for a lab version, with volume discounts available.

    Links:

    eSchool News’ Conference Information Center–FETC coverage
    http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic/index.cfm?CD=699

    Florida Educational Technology Conference
    http://www.fetc.org

    PLATO Learning Inc.
    http://www.plato.com

    PLATO White Paper: "The Need for Formative Assessment in Education"
    http://www.plato.com/downloads/papers/Formative_Assessment.pdf

    Software Technology Inc.
    http://www.sti-k12.com

    STI White Paper: "Formative Assessment and Its Uses for Improving Student Achievement"
    http://www.sti-k12.com/amntwhite.asp

    ThinkLink Learning
    http://www.thinklinklearning.com

    Harcourt Achieve
    http://www.harcourtachieve.com

    SchoolNet Inc.
    http://www.schoolnet.com

    Microsoft Corp.
    http://www.microsoft.com

    Sagebrush Corp.
    http://www.sagebrushcorp.com

    ETS Pulliam
    http://www.etspulliam.org

    School Zone Publishing Co.
    http://www.schoolzone.com

    BrainPOP LLC
    http://www.brainpop.com

    CompassLearning Inc.
    http://www.compasslearning.com

    Freedom Scientific
    http://www.freedomscientific.com

    LeapFrog SchoolHouse
    http://www.leapfrogschoolhouse.com

    Holt, Rinehart and Winston
    http://www.hrw.com

    Evan-Moor Educational Publishers
    http://www.evan-moor.com

     

     

    Evan-Moor also recently relaunched its web site to add more functionality for users. Thanks to a function called "Real Read," educators now can page through many of the company’s books online to see if they want to buy the hard copy. Each book rendered online through the Real Read technology appears exactly as it does in print, page for page. About two-thirds of the company’s catalog of 350 curriculum guides is now available in this format on the Evan-Moor web site, with more books being added each month, Evans said.

    At FETC, Evan-Moor introduced a new software program called "Take It to the Computer: Writing Sentences and Paragraphs," designed to help motivate students to write. With separate, grade-specific offerings for students in grades 1-5, the software uses interactive computer activities and print support materials as tools for building basic writing skills. The program leads students through each stage of the writing process, from prewriting to publishing, and gives students the opportunity to publish their completed work and share it with parents and others via a colorful printed page, an electronic slideshow, or a built-in eMail function. Each grade-specific edition retails for $399 for a classroom version or $599 for a lab version, with volume discounts available.

    Links:

    eSchool News’ Conference Information Center–FETC coverage
    http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic/index.cfm?CD=699

    Florida Educational Technology Conference
    http://www.fetc.org

    PLATO Learning Inc.
    http://www.plato.com

    PLATO White Paper: "The Need for Formative Assessment in Education"
    http://www.plato.com/downloads/papers/Formative_Assessment.pdf

    Software Technology Inc.
    http://www.sti-k12.com

    STI White Paper: "Formative Assessment and Its Uses for Improving Student Achievement"
    http://www.sti-k12.com/amntwhite.asp

    ThinkLink Learning
    http://www.thinklinklearning.com

    Harcourt Achieve
    http://www.