When he started testing the district’s online assessment program, middle school teacher Luke Bohlen got questions from other teachers, but his students were excited.

Jul 23 2007

Making an Impression

After four years of work, this Wisconsin district's effort in creating its own online assessment program is paying off for teachers, students and the bottom line.

After four years of work, this Wisconsin district’s effort in creating its own online assessment program is paying off for teachers, students and the bottom line.

Luke Bohlen knew it in a moment. The middle school foreign-language teacher had been experimenting with the district’s in-house curriculum software called Xam. Bohlen spent time creating his own questions, including audio files and pictures, to make a quiz that could be taken by his eighth graders on computers or handhelds.

While he believed in the process and the benefits it promised, including instant assessment and more engaged students, the first time he knew the system would work was when he saw students’ heads nodding during a quiz. The system allows students to review their tests as soon as they are complete, not only finding out what they got wrong, but what the right answer was. “There was no embarrassment” because the review was happening privately for each individual student, he says. “That’s where the window for learning is open. To see [the students’] heads nod told me they are teaching themselves.”

A lot of work went into creating that one moment in Tomah Middle School, in the Tomah (Wis.) Area School District. The work started back in 2003 when the district upgraded its curriculum model. This set off a series of changes that have landed Tomah where it is today. Now this fairly typical-size district, with 3,000 students and nine schools, not only has its own curriculum software but also its own online assessment system that can be accessed via the Web. The easiest part is also the most engaging, allowing students to take tests on personal digital assistants or in the computer lab.

Here’s the evolution of Tomah’s progress, including the district’s IT philosophy, what tools it uses and how administrators and early-adopter teachers helped the program thrive: While Tomah’s path was long, the program is now such an unqualified success that the district has successfully sold it to neighboring school districts to implement.

Phys Ed + Technology

Everyone knows data is king at K–12 schools these days, but not many schools have taken this to heart as much as Greenville High School in Greenville, Mich. Here the school’s gym teachers each carry a personal digital assistant that allows them to both input student activity and create class reports later. The teachers can show students pictures of proper weightlifting techniques and better communicate a student’s progress, or lack thereof, to parents. The proof is in the stats. Three years ago, one of every six students failed gym. For the first three semesters of the 2006–2007 school year, not one student failed.

Source: Palm

Laying the Groundwork

The first thing an IT department needs to go forward is a solid base. The four-person technology staff came with in-depth IT knowledge, not simply teachers who had a bent toward technology. The district maintains its almost 1,200 workstations by leveraging its network to perform most configuration and management on workstations and servers. This is a must with Tomah’s large geographical region and 12 buildings. The district philosophy holds that technology department staff shouldn’t need to physically touch a computer from the point it is installed until the five to six years later when it falls into the rotation schedule. The district uses local workstation lock-down techniques to accomplish this and ensure students and staff cannot harm the local workstations they are using. All the write access to local drives is removed, and all software goes through a stringent testing process prior to purchase to ensure it will run under these restrictions.

The curriculum and assessment work began four years ago. A new curricula model led to homegrown curricula software called Xam. To boost the assessment angle, this system was moved to the Web, where teachers could create online assessments.

The middle school principal, Cindy Zahrte, helped by advocating the use of the new software for semester exams. This year, the district administered a K–5 district­wide mathematics assessment and plans to use this process for a pre- and post-test environment from now on. But as the program’s success grew, the district’s finite number of computers began to look more inadequate. That’s where the handhelds came in. To keep the computer labs free for more intensive work, Tomah’s IT department put together some PDA labs. The district bought 25 HP/Compaq iPAQs and a Cisco Aironet wireless access point, pointed the PDAs to the Xam Web site and let the students go.

Early Adopters

All this work led to the make-or-break moment, when the system was offered to teachers. “When it came out, I jumped right on it,” says Bohlen. “I’d get questions from other teachers, but I wanted to see what the students thought.” After giving one test with a computer, and one with pencil and paper, he gave the students a choice. “They picked Xam every time,” even after a tough quiz on which most students fared poorly.

“It speaks to today’s generation,” he says. “The ability to see questions on-screen, have a personal work space and get instant grading” are benefits.

Theresa Payne, a first-grade teacher at Miller Elementary School, agrees. Her 6- and 7-year-olds also preferred the computerized test. “Part of that is my attitude, making it new and exciting, not something scary,” she says.

Theresa Payne’s elementary school students like taking tests on a computer, but the real benefit came when she was able to assess those students’ skills better.


But for both teachers, the system’s staying power came from two aspects. One, because the system was created in-house, the IT department was able to make fixes from small (changing the location of a button on the test-creation screen) to large (allowing teachers to highlight certain phrases and upload sound files and pictures to the quizzes). Two, after the initial outlay of time to enter questions and create new tests, the benefits seem too numerous to even count.

“I use the results as formative assessment,” Payne says. “I can change my instruction to improve their mastery of skills. One glaring problem we had was with vocabulary. It was hard, so I needed to focus more on that.” The questions Payne entered are connected directly to skills listed in the curricula, making it easy to see where help may be needed. And when a certain student misses a question, it’s easy for Payne to send a note along with an Internet link to where the student can practice that skill, from telling time to making change.

Bohlen says the private nature of the test and feedback has other advantages. He can write messages to students asking them to review what they missed, but more important, “Students are willing to make comments through this feature they may not have said in front of the whole class,” he adds.

Parents can benefit, too. The district’s grading program is integrated with the assessment software so test results are automatically uploaded. Not only does this save teachers time, but “parents can see [grades] minutes after the exam is complete,” he says. Even if they don’t take advantage of this feature, these results help a teacher communicate to a parent where the child is struggling or excelling, simply by calling up the student’s work.

Saving Money, Making Money

Tomah’s work has paid off in other ways. Not only are the homegrown software packages compatible with other software the district uses, including its student information system program, but the district avoids about $50,000 per year that it would typically pay in licensing fees to software creators.

The development of applications within the district didn’t come easy. If it weren’t for the vision of then Superintendent Tony Hinden and business manager Robert Fasbender (the current superintendent), the risk of going it alone may have been too great. For Tomah, the rewards keep accruing. The district recently gave all rights for district-developed software to the Tomah Area School District Foundation. The foundation sells the software to other districts through distributors such as the local Cooperative Educational Service Agency. The money the foundation makes, now that its attorney bill is paid, is pushed back into Tomah’s district to help purchase equipment and services.

The basic cost of the software for another district is a $1,000 hosting fee and $2 per student annually. But the package includes the complete curriculum and assessment system. The startup fees add another $1,000 to the cost, depending on the exact number of the district’s student population. Currently, five other districts use the Xam Curriculum and Assessment software and one is using the district’s student information software. All of these applications are Web-based and hosted at the Tomah Area School District, allowing the district’s technological expertise to be used by other districts in the area.

The Future of Mobile Devices

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are good educational tools, but with technology constantly evolving, a larger mobile device will soon make inroads into education, says University of Michigan professor Elliot Soloway.

Soloway says an early version of the new mobile devices is the Fourier Nova 5000, a Wi-Fi-enabled tablet that features a 7-inch color touch-screen display and Windows CE operating system. Students use the $642 device to Web surf, send e-mail and use word processing, spreadsheets and other educationally appropriate applications.

Ultraportable notebook computers, which feature similar small screens and keyboards, will gain popularity in education once their prices drop, Soloway predicts. The devices, which cost $1,000 to $2,000, will fall to $250 to $500 by 2009, making them competitive with current PDAs, he says.

Desktop and full-size notebook computers are too bulky, contain too many features students don’t need, and take too long to turn on and off, says Cathleen Norris, education technology professor at the University of North Texas.

Schools needing technology shouldn’t wait for the ultraportable devices to come down in price. If they need handhelds now, buy PDAs instead, Soloway says.

“Schools can’t wait,” he says. “Students are bored with the paper and pencil. And the goal of a teacher is to reach a child, so jump in and buy what you can.”

Unlike PCs, PDAs can be instantly turned on and off. They’re affordable, simple to use and give students the applications that they need, Norris says.

—Wylie Wong