An elearning pro shares how to prioritize to make the transition to online assessments smoother
As with anything in life, certain tradeoffs must happen in order for schools to spread already-thin resources across all critical projects. Schools already face this challenge on a daily basis, and now they must become Common Core assessment-ready at a time when resources are especially tight.
“In the end, there have to be some projects and/or expenses that receive lower priority within the district,” says Thomas Ryan, Ph.D., CEO at eLearn Institute, Inc., a nonprofit that helps districts prepare online learning strategies. “At this point, any prioritization that takes place really has to be based on district-wide, long-term decisions.”
Transitioning to a data-driven system
In looking at the digital education shift as a whole, Ryan says some schools are “holding onto the old way of doing things” even as they realize that the shift to online assessments is going to have to happen. “Trying to support a paper-based instructional model and a digital-based model is just too expensive,” says Ryan. “Unless there’s a stream of new funding coming in, schools really need to start putting [digital] transition plans in place.”
To finance such efforts, many districts are reducing traditional (non-digital) expenses to fund online assessment initiatives. For example, Ryan says some school districts are cutting back on copier use and paper expenses, and he points to flip charts, paper clips, pens, and pencils as potential savings areas.
“These items eat up a huge portion of a school’s supply budget,” says Ryan. “When you can divert those funds to tools that will do a better job, you start to save money.”
In helping eACADEMY Virtual High School (a part of Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico) make the transition to digital texts and online content, for example, Ryan says the institution was able to shift costs away from printed book costs; the storage, distribution, collection and replacement of books; and staff members such as textbook clerks.
(Next page: how to share the burden across departments)
The school also saved on paper, copier, printer (plus toner/maintenance), file folders, and writing instruments. “And since paper didn’t need to be stored, filed, and distributed,” Ryan says, “the number of clerical staff was significantly reduced.”
With online assessments being just one component of a more comprehensive school transformation, Ryan says schools will not be successful with their online assessments if significant changes in the day-to-day classroom haven’t occurred.
“Repositioning resources can only occur with this more comprehensive change model,” he cautions. “If the focus is primarily on March and April for the online assessment, then kids won’t do well and the [initiative] will be very expensive.”
Online assessment initiatives also shouldn’t be tasked to single departments or individuals. A better move, says Ryan, is to establish cross-functional teams that can assess districts as a whole and then make sweeping decisions regarding resource prioritization. Involve executive leaders, IT departments, and curriculum/assessment developers in the decision-making process, he suggests.
This cross-functional approach is crucial, because all the networks and devices in the world can’t compensate for poor teacher training (on how to use the devices for assessments, for example) or other oversights that might impede a timely online assessment rollout.
School district leaders have voiced concerns about having enough manpower to support online assessment, and spreading duties across several departments might help ease that burden.
“Don’t just dump the challenge on IT and expect that department to figure it out and react accordingly,” he warns. “The initiative has to be planned strategically and cohesively right from the beginning.”
(Next page: What not to focus on during the transition)
When prioritizing financial and human resources around online assessments, Ryan says it’s important for districts to understand that they’re not doing it simply for the sake of the assessment itself—but rather, as a way to delivery high-quality teaching in an effective and engaging learning environment. Adopting this mindset can help schools move forward with their efforts without feeling like they’re being forced to make radical changes in the name of assessment only.
Focus on teaching, not on testing
As states implement Common Core, Ryan advocates that school leaders identify the resources teachers need to modify instruction based on student progress. Take the use of formative, interim online assessments, for example. Going forward, the adoption of such test formats will require a mindset shift from “big event” annual tests to more frequent assessments throughout the school year.
When creating technical support systems for digital assessments, Ryan says districts should avoid the “build it and they will come” approach to classroom technology.
“It’s not about getting IT to build the infrastructure in hopes that it will resonate with the teachers and the students,” says Ryan. “Instruction has to be involved and must be focused on what’s going on in the classroom. All [stakeholders] really need to come together on this one and work with finance to prioritize and integrate a plan of action.”
And remember to focus not on the problem at hand (how to get ready for online assessments) but rather on how to deliver high-quality teaching and learning on a personalized, school-wide basis.
“If you’re trying to solve the online testing problem, then there’s a high likelihood that the effort will fail,” says Ryan. “However, if you focus on improving and enhancing the teacher’s ability to deliver high quality content, then you’re going to have a much more successful assessment strategy.”
Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.