School system bolsters its testing effort

New software focuses on learning gaps

some complain of workload

December 30, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

For a few years, it seemed that the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law, with its sanctions for failing schools, had made some educators resentful of too much testing. They said it stifled creative teaching and stunted learning among some students, who retained just enough to pass state tests.

But these days, some educators are promoting a new philosophy: More testing, not less, might improve teaching and learning.

Anne Arundel County schools are among scores of districts across the Mid-Atlantic -- and the nation -- that are embracing benchmark testing to alert teachers of lapses in learning well before students sit for state tests. To bolster that effort, the system has invested in new software that quickly analyzes students' performance on these tests, breaking down the data into graphs and bars, so teachers know exactly which concepts are stumping students, when to review a lesson and when to move forward.

This year, the Scantron software is being launched in all Anne Arundel elementary and middle schools after a similar rollout last year in the system's 12 high schools produced incremental gains on student performance on the Maryland High School Assessment. However, the rollout has disgruntled some teachers, who complain that technical glitches in the software have consumed precious hours after school and increased their workload.

Those concerns aside, the new software "makes me want to go back to school again," said retired Principal Patricia Nalley, a new school board member who attended recent training of about a dozen elementary and middle school principals in the South River and Arundel feeder systems.

"This takes the guesswork out of instruction," she said.

In the past 14 months, the school system has trained about 3,500 teachers to use the new software. The program and the technical support needed for it will cost the system about $406,000 a year.

"In the old days, the test was the end of the process," said Duane Arbogast, a senior manager of accountability for the school system. "Now, they're just the beginning. Assessments, we're realizing more and more, should be something we use to inform teaching and learning."

The software is used to analyze benchmark tests given in county schools every nine weeks, at the end of each marking period. In Texas, the tests and similar software are used as often as every three weeks. A 2005 survey by Education Week showed that 70 percent of superintendents across the country said they used these benchmark assessments.

For the most part, Anne Arundel gives the benchmark exams in the subjects tested on state assessments, including 10th-grade English, algebra and biology for high school and math, science and reading in elementary and middle schools.

Using the software, teachers print out specially coded multiple-choice answer forms to the tests. After students fill them out, teachers feed the forms into a scanner, which quickly reads students' answers, analyzes them and within 45 seconds gives a series of graphs showing how each student did on the test, and what questions were missed. That kind of trend data was harder see and took longer to compile with a row of scores in a grade book, Arbogast said.

Like tests in a doctor's office, Arbogast said, exams in schools can help pinpoint exactly why a student is not performing well. With states and federal agencies keeping such a keen eye on performance, it's not enough anymore, he said, to say a student is failing reading. To be effective, teachers have to know what parts of reading -- such as vocabulary, word comprehension or phonics -- a student is struggling with most, so they can tailor lessons that fix the problem.

But Arbogast's examples paint the best-case scenario.

Tim Mennuti, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said software hiccups have been common, and that the school system's launch of the program has been too swift.

"It's another example of good intentions gone awry," he said. "There's no question the end result is a good thing for schools and students, but this was an example of people not looking down the road to see how much this would increase the workload. They're adding more work for teachers without taking something else off the table."

At a recent principals' training, Arbogast and his colleague, Mike Ballard, showed the educators how to use the software to track not only students' progress but also that of teachers.

Mayo Elementary Principal Steve Baran sat before a computer and tentatively clicked on links to his classes, not sure of what he would find. His computer responded quickly, flashing with graphs of red, yellow and green. One click on a second-grade class and Baran was able to see that students were doing well breaking down compound words such as "goldfish," but less than half of the class did well on reading fluency, or translating letters to sounds and words effortlessly.

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