Oct 12 2006

Computers Deliver Quicker Results, More Insight Into Student Learning

The deputy superintendent and senior director of technology at the McKinney Independent School District discuss the merits and challenges of standardized testing, as well as the role technology plays in this arena.

Ask school administrators, teachers, parents and students, and everyone will have an opinion on standardized tests—positive, negative or ambivalent.

Proponents say standardized tests are the best way to gauge student achievement: They determine whether students have learned the information taught to them, and whether schools are successfully educating them. Add technology to the mix, and school districts can get test scores faster, and can better diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses, which, in turn, makes it much easier to help students improve. Proponents also say using computers to test students could cut down on potential cheating.

Critics say standardized tests that rely on multiple-choice questions don’t accurately reflect students’ knowledge, and that schools pressure teachers to focus lesson plans on improving test scores. Critics also argue that built-in biases—including ethnicity, economic status and how different students learn—could put some students at a disadvantage when it comes to taking standardized tests. Students with little access to computers, for example, could test poorly on computer-based tests.

At McKinney Independent School District in McKinney, Texas, students in third grade through high school must pass yearly standardized state assessment tests that determine whether they can continue to the next grade. They also must pass a high school exit exam to graduate.

Recently, Ted Moore, McKinney’s deputy superintendent, and Joe Miniscalco, senior director of technology and administrative services, discussed the merits of standardized tests and the impact of technology on those tests.

What’s your stance on standardized testing?

Moore: I’m a strong supporter of standardized tests. It’s critical to find out what students know and don’t know, based on some agreed-upon standard. Standardized testing can point out the gaps in student learning and gaps in the curriculum. It can point out weaknesses in teachers. Depending on what it tells you, that determines what intervention you need to make. That’s the benefit.

We administer a district test every nine weeks to help us see how our kids are progressing toward the end-of-the-year test. The tests show which teachers are effective, and who needs intervention. It’s high-stakes testing. Our third graders have to pass the third-grade reading test, for example, or else they don’t get promoted to the fourth grade.

The potential flaw is that you have to have the capacity, as principals and teachers, to know what the test is telling you. The flaw is failing to disaggregate the data and answer accurately.

Miniscalco: There’s more than one way to test in the classroom, and good teachers and administrators use data from a variety of testing tools. Standardized testing helps us focus on student achievement and brings accountability to students, parents, teachers and the administration. I’ve seen the impact of standardized tests. We think it’s yielding significant results.

What does technology bring to the equation?

Miniscalco: After a child takes a test, we are able to take the Scantron and scan it, and receive data immediately. Interpreted scores are sent to a database, which organizes the scores. Before this technology, there was a three-week delay to get reports.

Moore: Technology brings immediate feedback for teachers in the benchmark assessment tests [given every nine weeks]. They can look at how individual kids did and find out how they taught certain objectives. We can group data, for instance, to see how a third-grade teacher did compared to another one. A principal can see how one campus did compared to another. The increase in data holds people accountable to the standards.

Does a school district’s use of technology help improve standardized test scores?

Miniscalco: The way it’s improved is by putting the data in the hands of teachers and principals in a timely fashion. The reports identify specific skills a student lacks. The teacher either pulls those students into small groups or works with them one-on-one. Another teacher may have performed at a higher level on that skill, so we can match students with the most need with the teacher who’s best at teaching that skill. I believe test scores have improved over the last four years.

Moore: We had the opportunity to make recommendations on the types of reports we needed, and we had a vendor create them. The [technology] didn’t exist until we partnered with [the vendor]. We beta tested it here. We don’t buy off-the-shelf products if they are not customizable and don’t give us the features we want. We have high standards. We never let programs fit the technology. The technology must fit our programs.

The reports make teachers more effective and increase collaboration. If six fourth-grade teachers have deficiencies in the same area, we can put them together and remediate. They identify where they did well and where they didn’t. They can go to colleagues and say, “I didn’t do well in objective three,” and they can find someone who did well on that, and ask, ‘How did you do it and what strategies did you use?’ It’s a way to identify best practices by student results.

What political, social and cultural issues must school districts wrestle with as they decide to use technology for standardized tests?

Miniscalco: One thing we’ve done is work diligently to level the playing field. We want to make sure every child and school has been impacted positively. Some school districts may not take the approach we have, and, by doing that, they may prevent some students from benefiting from the technology. We have worked really hard to ensure that our kids receive what they need to be successful.

Moore: There’s a political issue when you are talking about standardized testing. There are some groups of parents who feel that we are teaching to tests, when in fact, we’re teaching to national standards, which people should want for their children.

When using technology for testing, what technology training is required for teachers?

Miniscalco: To print reports, you search for the reports you want and click on them—based on whether you want reports organized by student groups or by specific state standards.

Moore: It works like any other Web-based database. It’s very intuitive. After about a five-minute tutorial, anybody with a basic sense of technology can use it.

How do educators combat students’ disinterest in assessment tests?

Moore: That’s not an issue for us. The tests are aligned to what we’re teaching and it affects their grades. The students and parents are anxious to see how they did. Teachers want to know how the kids did, and how they did as an instructor.

Miniscalco: It’s just the standard way we teach and test. In our district, those assessment tests have value. And when it creates value for students, parents, teachers and administrators, that dispels disinterest.

How do you feel about the trend of using computers to test students?

Moore: It would be great to have that choice. It depends on the needs of the learner. There are some people who thrive in a computer-assisted environment, and some whose personal learning style is geared toward paper and pencil. What’s a ‘pro’ for one kid is a ‘con’ for another.

Miniscalco: We don’t do computer testing. But to meet the needs of every learner, we want to provide them an opportunity to answer in a fashion that allows them to show they understand what we’ve taught them, whether it happens through technology or paper and pencil.

What about the debate regarding “adaptive testing,” which gives students more or less difficult questions depending on how well they’re doing on the test?

Moore: I’m opposed to adaptive testing to determine what kids know and don’t know because it’s less accurate than testing for mastery. Now, if you’re testing where to place kids, then adaptive testing has its place. The purpose of a test determines the pros and cons.

The reason I’m comfortable with it is we don’t have to pinpoint everything a kid knows and doesn’t know. They are administered to determine the appropriate materials to use with kids. Let’s say I’m a fifth-grade teacher and looking at what I want students to do for reading practice. I want a sufficient level of difficulty. I want to challenge them, but I don’t want it to be so challenging that they put their books down.

Miniscalco: I’m a believer that teachers have to use multiple ways to gain insight into student learning. We have to provide many opportunities to get solid information. Multiple assessment tools are important to use with children.

Although debate about the efficacy of standardized testing continues, school districts like McKinney Independent School District will continue to seek faster and more thorough feedback through technologically enhanced standardized tests.