Feds tout computerized tests for key skills

Computer-based testing can be an effective way to measure so-called “21st-century skills” such as the ability to solve problems and synthesize information, according to a recent federal report.

Funded by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education, the study looks at two different computer-based scenarios for measuring students’ scientific skills on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card.

The study concludes that computer-based testing holds promise for measuring higher-order thinking skills that cannot be measured easily via traditional pencil-and-paper exams–a finding that is sure to resonate with advocates of teaching 21st-century skills in classrooms.

However, one of the researchers who wrote the report concedes the United States is probably at least five years away from adopting computer-based testing on a more widespread basis in schools.

The report, called “Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments (TREs): A Report from the NAEP Technology-Based Assessment Project,” is based on a study of how more than 2,000 eighth-grade students from U.S. public schools performed in one of two computer-based testing scenarios administered in 2003: a search scenario and a simulation scenario.

Eighth-graders were chosen to participate with the assumption that they would have basic computer skills; basic exposure to scientific inquiry and concepts; and the ability to read scientifically oriented material at a sixth-grade level or higher.

The search scenario required students to locate and synthesize information about scientific helium balloons from a simulated World Wide Web environment, and it was designed to measure students’ scientific inquiry and computer skills. The simulation scenario required students to conduct experiments of increasing complexity about relationships among buoyancy, mass, and volume, and it was designed to assess their scientific exploration, scientific synthesis, and computer skills.

According to Randy Bennett, one of the authors of the report and a Distinguished Scientist in the Research and Development Division of Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, these scenarios aimed to measure some of the key skills needed for success in college and the workplace.

“To be successful in a knowledge-based economy, individuals must be able to use computers to perform cognitive tasks–among other things, to search for and synthesize information from the internet, use simulations and modeling tools to answer what-if questions, and craft meaningful communications with text-editing and presentation tools,” Bennett explained.

He added: “The scenarios were engaging, highly interactive, and open-ended so as to capture skills not tapped by multiple-choice tests.”

The exams were delivered on school computers or on laptops taken into the schools, and the results suggest that the computer-based scenarios “functioned well as assessment devices.” Of particular significance, there was an “absence of gender differences” in the results, the report says, which was encouraging in light of the common stereotype that girls are less technologically proficient than boys.

Yet some “substantial differences” in the results did emerge among different racial or ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups, and groups with varying levels of parental education. The differences that appeared in these various groups could be “very worrisome if they exist beyond the two problem-solving scenarios used in the study,” Bennett said.

Still, he said, the most important result of the study was that 21st-century, higher-order learning skills can, indeed, be tested, and tested well–all within a computer-based test.

To Bennett and the other researchers, tests that involve problem-solving tasks such as these should be incorporated into federally mandated state testing under No Child Left Behind.

However, when asked whether educators can integrate this kind of 21st-century, computer-based testing in their schools, Bennett had this to say: “We are probably five to 10 years away from having online assessments substantially comprised of such tasks. We don’t yet have the development tools to make their production efficient; we don’t have all of the psychometric methods required for the analysis of student performance; and the schools don’t have the infrastructure to allow their widespread use.”

Still, Bennett offered hope, noting that the study was conducted in 2003, and the test was administered successfully to a wide representation of eighth-graders, meaning some schools, at least, had the necessary infrastructure to deliver it–infrastructure that likely has improved by now.

“Some states are moving faster than others, of course,” he said. “Oregon and Virginia are states that have large, well-established computer-based testing programs. We are not that far off.”

The TRE study is the last of three federal studies that explore the feasibility of delivering NAEP exams via computer. The previous two studies, Mathematics Online (MOL) and Writing Online (WOL), compared online and paper testing in terms of measurement, equity, efficiency, and operations.


“Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments” report


Classes resume after U. of Memphis shooting

Students at the University of Memphis returned to class Tuesday, Oct. 2, without knowing whether the fatal campus shooting of a football player was a targeted or random attack.

University officials had said they believed the Sunday night attack was specifically aimed at Taylor Bradford. But no suspects have been identified and police later said they could not yet determine the motive for the shooting outside a university housing complex that led officials to cancel classes Monday.

“We really don’t know whether it was a random act or whether or not this individual was targeted,” City Police Director Larry Godwin said.

Bradford, 21, apparently was shot near his apartment complex Sunday night, then crashed a car he was driving into a tree a short distance away on campus, authorities said. They have not determined whether he was shot before or after he started driving.

Police were responding to the crash when they found Bradford slumped over in the car.

“It wasn’t until the paramedics got there that they determined there was a possible gunshot wound,” said Bruce Harber, director of university police. He was apparently shot once, police said, though an autopsy was pending.

University President Shirley Raines said authorities quickly determined Bradford’s killer or killers were not a threat to other students but still banned all outsiders from campus housing throughout the night.

In an eMail alert to faculty, students, and staff members early Monday, the university said “the initial investigation indicates this was an act directed specifically toward the victim and was not a random act of violence.”

The university, which is primarily a commuter campus and has more than 20,000 students, still decided to cancel classes Monday.

Witnesses saw two unidentified men running from the area where investigators believe the shooting occurred and other witnesses reported hearing gunfire, said Godwin, the city police director.

He said investigators had no evidence that Bradford was involved in any illegal activity.

“Everything I’ve heard about him…he was just a good kid,” Godwin said.

Bradford, a 5-foot-11, 300-pound defensive lineman, was a junior who transferred to Memphis last year after two seasons at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. The Nashville resident was to play for the Tigers this season.

Monday afternoon, several football players and others tied a large red ribbon to the tree Bradford struck with his car and put up a large poster board for friends and acquaintances to leave personal notes.

“Our entire football team is deeply saddened by the loss of Taylor,” Memphis head coach Tommy West said. “He was well respected and a popular member of our team.”

The Memphis Tigers host Marshall University on Tuesday night, and a moment of silence was planned before the game.

Bradford lettered in three sports at Antioch High School in Nashville, and held school records in shot put and discus.


University of Memphis


Tech, mentoring combine to raise scores for at-risk students

The challenge facing Brewster Elementary School seven years ago seemed apparent–we needed to create an improved learning environment. However, that would not be easy when, from all appearances, the future of Brewster Elementary was looking rather bleak.

Brewster Elementary in Brewster, Wash., enrolls approximately 500 students in kindergarten through grade six. About 97 percent of Brewster students receive free or reduced-price lunches. The rural school, in north central Washington, is part of the Brewster School District 111 public school system. The district consists of two schools, one elementary school and one junior/senior high school, serving slightly more than 1,000 students.

Many of the town’s inhabitants are migrant workers, leading to a stunning 70 percent transient student population. Reading test scores for students across all grades levels were plummeting; in some cases, students were reading one to three grade levels below average. Not long after that, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was enacted, which placed new academic performance accountability pressures on school officials nationwide.

Given that academic standards were on the rise and school demographics were always shifting, we decided we needed some sort of supplemental education support for our ever-present and growing at-risk student base.

We searched for a solution that would involve our teaching staff, as well as the community at large. School officials began by independently reviewing and researching solutions that offered mentoring and intervention programs.

It was through this comprehensive research that we discovered the HOSTS Learning System. This introduction to HOSTS Learning’s Mentoring and Intervention Solution would prove to be a turning point for the school, the students, and the residents of Brewster.

HOSTS Learning appeared to be our salvation. It’s as if the solution were designed with us in mind. It supported the concept of raising academic achievement with one-on-one mentoring using teachers, parents, and other adults. We couldn’t wait to get started.


To create the improved learning environment we were committed to delivering to our struggling elementary students, we used Title I funding to purchase the HOSTS Learning solution. Following that, the HOSTS Learning coordinator and I undertook a comprehensive evaluation of the school’s current educational programs and existing assessment data.

The next step was to use the HOSTS Learning system to tie the state and local formative assessment data to the school’s existing curriculum and instructional resources to create individual learning paths for each student, for both the classroom teachers and community mentors. These individual learning plans would be used as their guide in helping each student to excel.

Finally, we solicited volunteers from the community to implement the structured reading intervention program. The program, with both online and paper-based materials, supported vocabulary building, expansion of word analysis skills, comprehension, writing, and critical thinking skills.

Today, nearly 120 residents out of a population nearing 2,500 mentor about 60 students, mostly in the third and fourth grades.

Brewster administrators used a two-prong implementation strategy with the school’s mentoring program. First, they had classroom teachers develop an intense, one-on-one learning relationship with their students, followed by a pairing with a community-based mentor. This collaborative integration of teaching and learning services is delivered throughout the day, starting before regular school hours and continuing after school in a dedicated HOSTS Learning room. The results demonstrated immediate improvement across all lessons and activities.

For some students, the time spent with their mentor is the only time they get one-to-one time with an adult. During this brief period, the students have the undivided attention of someone who truly is concerned about their learning needs, and that confidence is paid forward with renewed interest and self-belief in the classroom.

Additionally, the staff now have a system in place whereby they review individual student progress data every five to six weeks.

We are constantly regrouping and reassessing. That is one of best parts of the HOSTS Learning solution. It is extremely flexible, offering research-based instructional suggestions that can make a huge impact. It is so easy to quickly course correct, adding more challenging work from our own curriculum or other resources for a higher-performing student, while slowing down for a student who isn’t ready to move to the next concept.

Later this year, Brewster Elementary will be one of the first schools to migrate to HOSTS Learning’s new management resource system, called IntelliPath. This next-generation technology will go one step further in tracking assessments to schools’ or districts’ existing curriculum resources (more than 340 publishers are available), with page-specific accuracy, to create more detailed, dynamic learning paths for students and make differentiated instruction easier for teachers and mentors alike.


With more informed, data-driven instruction entrenched schoolwide, the results have been extremely impressive.

In 2003, only 19 percent of Brewster Elementary students met or exceeded math standards. By 2005, nearly 26 percent of the students attained those same standards. And in reading, that same two-year time period saw a jump of a whopping 30 percentage points–from 45 percent to nearly 75 percent of students performing at grade-level standards.

The adequate yearly progress (AYP) tests have shown equally dramatic gains–going from just 25 percent passing to more than 75 percent.

The students are gaining in educational knowledge and interpersonal skills that will serve them throughout their lives.

Education must be focused, defined, and measurable rather than random and accidental. At Brewster Elementary, we have applied these principals using the HOSTS Learning System over the past seven years, and our students have achieved amazing results.

Eric Driessen was raised in Brewster, Washington. After completing his college education and teaching for 12 years, he returned to the city of Brewster and taught in the junior and senior high schools. For the past seven years, Driessen has served as principal at Brewster Elementary.


NBC News offers teachers access to video archives online

This fall, teachers will have free online access toa video vault featuring more than 60 years of historic news andinformation, thanks to a partnership between NBC News and HotChalk, anonline learning management system for K-12 education. To provideprimary-source multimedia content that far exceeds what is available intraditional textbooks, NBC News has made available more than 5,000video resources that can be used to supplement instruction in a widerange of courses. History students can watch the civil-rights movementas it happened and view interviews with key players; science studentscan see recreated footage of the Ice Age or watch today’s arcticshelves disintegrate into the ocean; and government classes can haveaccess to the latest news on immigration, the presidential race, orinternational relations. Teachers can sign up at HotChalk.com to usethese new resources free of charge for the fall 2007 semester, thoughcontinued use after this period will require a school buildingsubscription through HotChalk. "When students can see and hear theevents and people that made history, such as President Kennedy’s speechabout freedom to throngs of people at the Berlin Wall, they engage. TheNBC News videos naturally draw students in, leading to deeperunderstanding of the subject at hand," said Edward Fields, HotChalk’spresident and chief executive.



Toyota Family Literacy Teacher of the Year Award

Presented by the NationalCenter for Family Literacy (NCFL) and Toyota, the Toyota FamilyLiteracy Teacher of the Year Award is given to educators who demonstrateexemplary efforts to help parents and children achieve their academic andnon-academic goals.


Presidential Award for Reading and Technology 2008

The Presidential Award for Readingand Technology honors educators in grades K-12 who are making an outstandingand innovative contribution to the use of technology in reading education. There will be one grand-prize winner, seven U.S. regionalwinners, one Canadian, and one international winner. All entrants must beeducators who work directly with students ages 5-18 for all or part of theworking day.


MetLife/NASSP State Principal of the Year 2008

The State and National Principal of the Year Awards programs annuallyrecognize outstanding secondary school leaders who have succeeded in providinghigh-quality learning opportunities for students. These principals areacknowledged by their peers for the exemplary contributions they have made tothe profession. The programs honor secondary school principals who havedemonstrated excellence in the areas addressed by the selection criteria.


National Parent Teacher Association Fellowships

The National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) invites grant proposals fororiginal research and writing on the organization’s policies concerning theeducation and/or welfare of children in the United States. Fellows will produce original scholarlyresearch which may appear in dissertation, journal article, book, or bookchapter. Topics may cover a wide range of policy-related issues that includebut are not limited to: student achievement and assessment; student andparental attitudes; parent involvement; contextual factors (individual,curricular, and school related) in education; educational participation andpersistence (kindergarten through career entry); at-risk students; earlychildhood education; school finance; support for public education; childhealth; child welfare; the role of mass media; and child advocacy.


National Vocabulary Championship

The National Vocabulary Championship promotes the value ofan enhanced vocabulary to teens across the country by providing free PrincetonReview study resources and holding live game show-style events that awardcollege-bound students more than $100,000 in money toward tuition. High school students should visit NVC’s website to take the qualifying exam.