States given millions for new assessments

Duncan said that assessments are only as good as the standards being tested.

Duncan said assessments are only as good as the standards being tested.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Sept. 2 announced the recipients of millions of dollars in federal grants to provide new state assessment systems to test students’ 21st-century skills. The announcement comes as part of the recent push from the federal Education Department (ED) for higher-performing schools and common standards.

Two large state coalitions won this “Race to the Top” competition to create a series of new national academic tests to replace the current patchwork system: the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) from Washington state and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) from Florida. (See “States collaborate on new national exams.”)

SBAC, which submitted an application on behalf of a group of 31 states, received $160 million. It will focus on formative assessments and the use of technology for testing to measure student growth over time through computer adaptive testing. It will continue to use one test at the end of the year for accountability purposes but will create a series of interim tests to inform students, parents, and teachers about whether students are on track.

PARCC, which submitted an application on behalf of a group of 26 states, received $170 million. It will focus on testing students’ critical thinking skills by examining their speaking skills, reading analysis and essay skills, digital media skills, and project-building skills. It also will replace the one end-of-year, high-stakes accountability test with a series of assessments throughout the year that will be averaged into one score for accountability purposes, reducing the weight given to a single test administered on a single day—and providing valuable information to students and teachers throughout the year.

“By joining forces, our states will be able to learn from one another and develop next-generation assessments that monitor student achievement of the knowledge and skills necessary for success after high school,” said Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester, who will chair the PARCC governing board.

Both groups will assess students’ knowledge of mathematics and English/language arts from third grade through high school and could replace existing tests, such as interim assessments that are commonly used in classrooms today.

Both consortia designed their assessment systems with expert input and help from teachers of English language learners (ELL) and students with disabilities to ensure that these students are appropriately assessed, officials said.

Higher-education institutions within the consortia’s states also have “bought in” to the new assessments, said Duncan—many by accepting these assessment scores and forgoing remediation if student scores are high.

The proposals submitted by the two consortia had many similarities, but they are not identical in approach or philosophy—characteristics Duncan said are needed for progressive thinking and effective change in the U.S.

“This is the beginning of assessments 2.0,” said Duncan during a live webcast from Achieve’s Annual American Diploma Project Network Leadership Team Meeting at the Westin Hotel in Alexandria, Va. “And what makes this creation even more admirable is that it’s 100-percent the vision of state and local leaders.”

Achieve is a nonprofit education reform organization that helps states raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability.

Duncan made clear that these new assessments are not pilot programs, but will be implemented in participating states by the 2014-15 school year.

“This is the first time we’ll ever really know if students are college and career ready. Also, parents, students, and the community will finally have an assessment system that lets them be proactive in their learning by giving them up-to-the-minute results and testing critical skills,” he said.

“Our nation is in active competition for jobs with students from around the world,” said Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith. “This federal award … signals high-quality instruction in every classroom and [gives] our families the ability to accurately track the progress of their students.”

“This funding will allow partnership states to make an ‘apples to apples’ comparison of student achievement,” said Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek.

“The immediate assessment results will provide teachers the information they need to adapt their instruction to the needs of each student,” said Judy Park of Utah, co-chair of the newly elected SBAC executive committee. “Those results will also improve student motivation during the testing process and help students better understand their current knowledge and skills.”

Duncan also explained that these assessments will ease the burden of testing and teaching to the test.


FCC rejects proposal for free wireless service

Federal regulators have shot down a proposal by a startup called M2Z Networks Inc. to build a free, nationwide wireless broadband network using a spare slice of airwaves, reports the Associated Press. The Federal Communications Commission on Sept. 1 said it has rejected M2Z’s request that the agency demand that the winner of an auction for the radio spectrum provide free internet service to anyone who connects to it. That condition would have mirrored M2Z’s business model of offering free basic wireless broadband access—with speeds of up to 768 kilobits per second—that would be supported by advertising in addition to a faster, premium service. “We gave careful and thorough consideration to the proposal, but ultimately determined that this was not the best policy outcome,” Ruth Milkman, head of the FCC’s wireless bureau, said in a statement. The FCC did not explain its rejection further. M2Z’s plan had encountered resistance from T-Mobile USA and other big wireless carriers, which warned that it would interfere with their own services…

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The school that gives kids their own iPads

A private school in Scotland has given sleek new iPads to every single one of its pupils to use in class this year and to even take home, Forbes reports. It’s the brainchild of Fraser Speirs, the IT director of Cedars School of Excellence in Greenock, who wanted to solve the problem of the school’s computer lab, which had 12 desktops and 12 laptops, constantly being overbooked. First, he thought of giving everyone iPod Touches, but that wouldn’t have allowed them to do serious work like writing essays. Then the iPad was launched, and it now takes care of 99 percent of the work the students need to do. Wrapped in a smart carry case, the students carry their iPads with them into math class, science, and art—and the teachers download the appropriate apps that allow the kids to draw on the touch screen, look at graphs, or go online. As far as Speirs knows, no other school in the U.K., much less the world, is deploying iPads to all its students in this way…

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Samsung takes on Apple with iPad rival

Samsung on Sept. 2 unveiled what the South Korean electronics giant hopes will be a major rival to Apple’s highly successful iPad tablet computer, AFP reports. The Galaxy Tab, presented at the IFA electronics trade fair in Berlin, has a seven-inch touch screen, slightly smaller than the iPad’s 9.7 inches, and uses Google’s Android 2.2 operating system. Weighing 0.8 pounds—only half the iPad’s 1.5 pounds—the device launches in Europe in mid-September and in other markets (including the U.S.) in the coming months. But Samsung gave no indication of whether the Galaxy Tab will undercut the iPad on price, which retails from $499 for the basic model. In an indication of how much Apple’s iPad has influenced the computer market, Japan’s Toshiba is rumored to be unveiling its own tablet PC in Berlin, and Samsung’s South Korean rival, LG Electronics, has promised to release a tablet PC using Android before December…

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Early iPad adopter to use art application this fall

Art Authority will be used in two Seton Hill art courses this fall.

Art Authority will be used in two Seton Hill art courses this fall.

Seton Hill University, one of the first campuses to board the Apple iPad bandwagon before the device was released in April, announced Aug. 23 that its art history students will use an iPad application that allows access to more than 40,000 sculptures and paintings.

The university’s art faculty and instructors will use the iPad application known as Art Authority in the campus’s Modern Art and Italian Renaissance Art courses.

University officials said the iPad app would offer students a way to review classic and modern artworks outside of class without relying on static images in textbooks.

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First virtual school in Mass. opens today

The Massachusetts Virtual Academy opens in Greenfield on Sept. 2, not only as the first in the state, but also as the first virtual school in New England to serve students from kindergarten through high school, reports the Boston Globe. At the virtual school, students will take all of their classes online and have a learning coach make sure they complete their assignments. A parent could be certified, for instance, to be the learning coach. The student can work anytime of day, and some might never see their teachers in person. Greenfield Superintendent Susan Hollins said a small fraction of students find the size and fixed structure of traditional schools unworkable for them, adding: “I’m delighted to spearhead something that opens doors and provides another opportunity for children and parents.” Greenfield officials believe 10,000 to 20,000 students in Massachusetts could benefit from a virtual school, but the school is limited to 500. Greenfield has been working on opening a virtual school for 18 months. Provisions of the state’s education overhaul law, passed this year, allowed for virtual schools. But Greenfield faced a roadblock in the state’s requirement that 25 percent of the students live in the district operating the virtual school, and 10 percent if the school is intended to serve a target population. The state granted Greenfield an exemption Aug. 13 to those rates and requires only 2 percent instead…

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FCC seeks input on rules for online services

The FCC is seeking public input on what rules should apply to wireless internet access.

The FCC is seeking public input on what rules should apply to wireless carriers and specialized internet services.

In the latest twist in the Federal Communications Commission’s pursuit of “net neutrality” rules to prevent broadband providers from discriminating against certain types of traffic flowing over their lines, federal regulators are seeking public input on what rules should apply to wireless internet access and specialized services that aren’t part of the internet but are delivered over wired broadband connections.

The agency’s move comes a few weeks after Google Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. announced a proposal of their own that would allow the FCC to enforce net neutrality rules for wireline broadband traffic would but exempt wireless carriers. The companies’ plan, which was not popular with public interest groups, also would leave room for broadband providers to charge extra to route traffic from so-called “premium services” over dedicated networks that are separate from the public internet.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, as well as many internet content providers, public interest groups, and education organizations, say net neutrality rules are needed to prevent phone and cable companies from abusing their control over high-speed internet access to become online gatekeepers for content.

But the commission faces fierce resistance from phone and cable companies, which insist they need flexibility to manage network traffic to prevent high-bandwidth applications from hogging capacity. Phone companies are particularly opposed to applying net neutrality rules to wireless services, which have more capacity constraints than wired systems.

Phone and cable companies also fear that strict net neutrality rules would prevent them from charging a premium for specialized services that travel over dedicated networks, often called “managed services.” That category includes video services such as AT&T Inc.’s U-Verse and could expand to include online gaming, remote medical monitoring, and power grid controls. Some education groups are worried these also could include video services used for distance education.

Broadband providers, on the other hand, warn that rules prohibiting them from offering premium services could discourage them from continuing to invest in their lines.

Last month, Verizon and Google offered their own policy proposal to try to find a middle ground on net neutrality. Their plan would prohibit phone and cable companies from slowing down, blocking, or charging to prioritize internet traffic traveling over their regular broadband lines. But it would allow broadband providers to charge extra for services like U-Verse that are separate from the public internet.

The Verizon-Google plan also would exempt wireless services from net-neutrality rules.

The FCC’s decision to seek public comment on both issues is a disappointment to public-interest groups that have been calling on the agency to move ahead quickly with strong net-neutrality regulations. They say these rules are needed to prevent phone and cable companies from favoring their own services or those of business partners and from discriminating against internet phone calls, online video, and other web services that compete with their core businesses.

“While the FCC continues to play the game of kick the can down the road, consumers are left unprotected,” said Free Press Research Director Derek Turner. He added that “nothing in today’s notice contains anything new.”

Free Press and other public-interest groups have also been sharply critical of the proposal from Verizon and Google. They say it would create a two-tiered internet with a fast lane for online companies that can pay more and a slow lane for everyone else. They also complain that it includes a giant loophole for the mobile web at a time when more and more consumers are going online using handheld devices.


Designing a high-definition high school TV production studio

The challenge of designing and building the new TV production studio required much coordination and communication.

The challenge of designing and building the new TV production studio required much coordination and communication.

When Minnesota School District 112 decided to build a new high school, it offered Dan Pelowski, instructional technology coordinator for the district’s secondary schools, a rare opportunity to design a high-definition TV production studio from the ground up.

“I had been managing the TV production studio at the old high school and jumped at the chance to design and build a TV production studio in the new high school using the latest in high definition technology,” said Pelowski.

ISD 112 covers the growing western Minneapolis suburbs of Chaska and Chanhassen. When the Chaska High School started becoming overcrowded, the district approved the construction of a new high school– Chanhassen High School–in 2006.

The challenge of designing and building the new TV production studio required a lot of coordination and communication, Pelowski said. “I formed a team that included myself and high school instructional technology coordinators Chuck Nelson and Jason Pelowski.

“We started the concept planning by interviewing other instructors and students about what they liked and didn’t like about the studio at the old high school. The comments from the students were helpful since these were the students who had taken multiple classes and plan to make a career in this field.”

Pelowski said it was important to work with the architect early on in the process to ensure that room size and other factors were adequately attended to.

The next step for the planning team was to visit several other high schools that had recently installed TV production studios to see the equipment and systems they were using. “Besides visiting other high schools, we consulted with Todd Johnson at Alpha Video in Edina, Minn. to get an update on the technology. Alpha Video had installed the production studio in the old high school in 1996. At this point, we also started working closely with Wayne Buse at Hallberg Engineering in White Bear Lake, MN,” Pelowski said.

Hallberg Engineering served as the technology and communications consultant on the project and Wayne Buse was the AV consultant.

“Our concept planning was identifying the number of cameras and other components we needed, but Todd and Wayne were able to specify the vendor and model numbers for the components,” Pelowski added.

Commenting on his work with Chanhassen High school, Wayne Buse, now with Northland Technology Consulting in Minneapolis, said: “The process starts with sitting down with the stakeholders and finding out what they want to do with the space. We reviewed the physical dimensions and the workflow planned for the available space. The next thing is to discuss how they want to do TV distribution throughout the building, which is a big issue now for high schools. Then the discussion quickly gets to equipment selection versus the available budget. Budget constraints are always an important issue with high schools.”

Buse continued: “I developed a general description of the systems for the production studio and then working with Todd from Alpha, other integrators and several relevant manufacturers, we specified the components to make up the systems. In most cases, when we specified a specific model number, we allowed ‘or pre-approved equivalent’ products to be bid. This helps to keep the cost down because we’re not specifying sole source products. Any alternative equipment substitution proposed by integrators was subject to technical review by the consultant to ensure that the proposed substitutions do not violate the design intent of the system.  ”

Alpha Video won the bid for the production studio and installation started in early 2009. Installation was completed by the fall of 2009 when the new school opened.

The major components of the installed systems include:

(2) Canon XH GH1 HD Camcorder
(1) Canon XH A1S Camcorder
(2) Apple Mac Pro with Virtual VTR software
(1)Broadcast Pix Production Switcher
(2) Autoscript 12” TFT teleprompters
(1) 46” Sharp LCD monitor
(1) 32” Viewsonic LDC display
(5) 22” Viewsonic LCD monitors
(2) JVC DVD/VHS combo recorder
(2) Varizoom 7” 19×9 monitors
(10) Canon VIXIA HF200

Audio components include four Tannoy Reveal Studio speakers, an Aphex 120A audio amplifier, a Telex RTS MS-2002 master station, Sony lapel mics, and Sennheiser wireless mics.

Pelowski noted: “We are extremely pleased with the systems and workflow in our new studio. The studio is spacious enough so that two sets of students can be setting up for two separate productions. One set uses the fixed camera and one set uses the portable camera. Of course they can’t both record at the same time, but it keeps more students engaged as they practice and set-up for their production time.”

“The most important benefit to the new HD TV production studio is that the students are learning real production skills that will qualify them for jobs when they leave high school or college,” Pelowski said.


Deep-sea images reveal colorful life on ocean’s floor

SiteofWeek090110Scientists using cutting-edge technology to explore waters off northern Indonesia were wowed last month by colorful and diverse images of marine life on the ocean floor—including plate-sized sea spiders and flower-like sponges that appear to be carnivorous.

They predicted that as many as 50 new plant and animal species might have been discovered during the three-week expedition that ended Aug. 14.

More than 100 hours of video and 100,000 photographs, captured using a robotic vehicle with high-definition cameras, were piped to shore in real time by satellite and high-speed internet.

Scientists used a powerful sonar mapping system and the robotic vehicle to explore nearly 21,000 square miles of sea floor at depths ranging from 800 feet to more than two miles.

The mission was carried out by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on a ship called the Okeanos Explorer. Visitors to the expedition’s web site can view the images themselves, and an Education section is geared toward teachers and students.

Verena Tunnicliffe, a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada, said the images provide an extraordinary glimpse into one of the globe’s most complex and little-known marine ecosystems.

“Stalked sea lilies once covered the ocean, shallow and deep, but now are rare,” she said in a written statement. “I’ve only seen a few in my career. But on this expedition, I was amazed to see them in great diversity.”

Likewise, Tunnicliffe also has seen sea spiders before, but those were tiny in comparison, all around one inch long: “The sea spiders … on this mission were huge: eight inches or more across.”

One animal captured on video looks like a flower, covered with glasslike needles, but scientists think it is probably a carnivorous sponge. The pink spikes, covered with sticky tissue, appear to capture food as it passes by.

Other pictures showed a lavender-colored fish walking on the sea floor and the bright red arms of underwater lilies.


GPS keeps track of Chicago-area school bus riders

Palos Heights School District 128 is among a growing number of school systems using GPS technology to keep track of whether students get on and off their buses safely, reports Superintendent Kathleen Casey researched the technology last year after a first-grade student missed his stop, remaining on the bus as it rolled by his grandmother who stood waiting for him. Casey said the child never left the bus, but for 20 minutes, school officials and family members raced to find him. “It’s a terrifying experience,” she said, adding that she hopes the technology will help if future incidents occur. About 5 percent of the 490,000 school buses that transport kids across the country are believed to use the student tracking technology, according to the National Association for Pupil Transportation. “It’s absolutely growing, and I think exponentially,” said Executive Director Mike Martin. Palos Heights officials assigned the ID tags to 400 students in preschool through fifth grade. Teachers clipped a card to each student’s book bag. From her office, transportation director Barbara Lynch can check when a student boards or exits a bus or when a bus leaves the school. If a parent calls to inquire about a late student, Lynch or the school secretaries—the only ones able to log into the system—can determine the bus’s location along the route and whether a particular child is on board. The system updates every 30 seconds and uses GPS technology to track the buses. Students are logged in to the bus using radio frequency identification (RFID). The district paid $16,000 for the technology on 10 school buses—a price that included the RFID cards, which cost $3.25 each…

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