To improve student achievement, teachers must set clear standards for students to achieve and identify how they will demonstrate that they have met these standards. When teachers assess students’ performance carefully and adjust instruction to meet the learning needs of each student, students’ achievement and teachers’ effectiveness increase.
The No Child Left Behind Act has been successful in driving teachers to use data to inform their decisions about instruction. The act requires not only that states develop annual assessments to measure students’ progress but that educators use data to help improve the learning of all students. It seems obvious that teachers and administrators should use data to aid in their decision making process, but this becomes challenging when they are confronted with a wide variety of complex data that they must use to make informed instructional decisions.
There is a growing belief that educators are not prepared to analyze various data sources adequately or to think critically about the relationships between instructional practices and student outcomes. So how does a school make sense of the state standardized test-score data and the data teachers collect through unit tests, group projects, and other formative assessments? These data become meaningful only when they are transformed into actionable information.
Technology can aid teachers and administrators in transforming data into actionable information in several ways. Whether it is by organizing raw data into information that is aligned with state standards and benchmarks or by providing teachers and students with immediate feedback on classroom digital formative and summative assessments, technology provides solutions to making sense of data and makes it easier to use data to drive instructional decisions. Both summative and formative assessments provide data that are important to the learning process. If you rely too much on one or the other, however, you will not glean the information necessary to gain the full picture of what students know and can do.
Summative assessments are given at a particular point in time to mark the end of a unit of instruction. These assessments are based on given standards and benchmarks and define what a student knows and does not know. State standardized tests are an example of summative assessment, but summative assessments are also used at the end of classroom units of instruction and are an important part of district and classroom programs. Summative assessments at the district or classroom level are most often used for grading students and assigning them to appropriate classes in the future.
Summative assessments become far more efficient and inexpensive with the aid of technology. Online assessments use a computing system to create, store, deliver, and score test items. These functions are frequently performed by a learning-management system (LMS) or a more specialized testing system. Higher-end systems may also allow a teacher to select from test items based on a specific state standard to create their tests.
A relatively new but promising area is online essay grading, in which the software can grade a student’s essay or open-ended response. The system can also provide suggestions for improving the student’s writing. Standardized testing involves many expenses, whether the test is executed with paper and pencil or through a digital medium. Some of the fixed costs are standards setting, equating and scaling, item formation, and independent psychometric review. Variable costs include printing, packaging, distribution, scanning, storage, disposal, and scoring. It is in these variable costs that tremendous cost savings can be made.
The estimate of the cost of online testing in Michigan, for example, was $5.90 per student versus $9.70 for the traditional paper-and-pencil method. This may not seem like a substantial difference, but when you multiply it by the 1,450,000 students who take the test in Michigan every year, the state could save $5,510,000 a year. An additional important benefit is that schools could receive results within 48 hours, instead of the months it currently takes, which render the results almost useless.
Summative assessments are important, but they evaluate only the end result of the learning process. Because they are administered after the learning has taken place, they provide important data for evaluating the effectiveness of the classroom instruction, the proper placement of students within a program, or the effectiveness of a program itself.
Unlike summative assessments, which happen at the end of an instruction unit, formative assessmentsare part of the instructional process. Formative assessment can be ongoing and provide immediate feedback that can be used by the teacher and/or student to adjust instruction while the learning is happening. This immediate feedback empowers the student by letting them know immediately where there are problems in their thought process and provides opportunities for the teacher to guide the student in the right direction as they learn the concept or skill. In their article for the National Middle School Association, Catherine Garrison and Michael Ehringhaus describe formative assessment as a type of “practice” and suggest that teachers should not grade students on skills and concepts in the introductory stages of learning.
“What if, before getting your driver’s license, you received a grade every time you sat behind the wheel to practice driving? What if your final grade for the driving test was the average of all the grades you received while practicing? Because of the initial low grades you received during the process of learning to drive, your final grade would not accurately reflect your ability to drive a car. In the beginning of learning to drive, how confident or motivated to learn would you feel? Would any of the grades you received provide you with guidance on what you needed to do next to improve your driving skills? Your final driving test, or summative assessment, would be the accountability measure that establishes whether or not you have the driving skills necessary for a driver’s license—not a reflection of all the driving practice that leads to it.”
Unlike the question-and-answer method used in summative assessments, formative assessments can take many forms. They can be performance assessments, for example, in which students have to demonstrate the practical application of the knowledge. They could take the form of a play, an artwork, or a song that demonstrates students’ understanding in creative ways. Or they could even take the form of a digital question-and-answer test that provides instant feedback and elaboration of the questions that students answer incorrectly. Good teachers employ these assessment strategies and many others.
The important thing is that the formative assessment provide information to the teacher and students and use that information to enhance learning.
The use of technology in formative assessments is not limited to interactive tests. Students can use technology to design and generate a host of dynamic, creative processes and products to demonstrate their learning. What is important is that formative assessments allow students to use their creativity, empower them with choices, and provide them with opportunities to apply their understanding to real-world situations.
Technology also makes is easier for teachers to use project-based learning strategies that can lead to higher student engagement while providing meaningful feedback to the teachers (and students) about what students know and can do.
Differentiated instruction is an instructional approach that also capitalizes on students’ creativity, empowerment, and demonstration of knowledge. Children grow and develop at different rates, have different interests, and have different strengths and weaknesses. When a teacher teaches the same thing to the entire class at the same time, it is likely that a third of the students already know the content.
Another third of the class will learn it. The other third may not have the knowledge base and skills required to understand the content and will therefore not learn it. In this scenario, a third of the students are actually learning.
Differentiated instruction is a student-centered approach that attempts to reach all students by offering many pathways to learning. The strategy is based on good assessment practice. It provides two entry points for learning: students’ readiness and students’ interest. A student’s readiness is addressed through carefully targeted strategies based on the teacher’s assessment of the student’s abilities. A student’s interest is addressed through the options, or pathways, the student can use to learn.
There are also three “modes” that can be differentiated in the classroom: the content, the activities, and the products. The content refers to what the students will learn. This can be adjusted according to the assessment of a student’s readiness. The activities refer to the opportunities through which students will process new concepts and skills.
Providing students with many pathways for exploring new content and allowing them to choose the pathway they like helps differentiate instruction. The products refer to how students will demonstrate what they have learned. Allowing students to be creative in choosing the way they demonstrate what they know and can do also contributes to differentiated instruction.
Teachers can differentiate the learning environment so that it is flexible and appropriate for all students, although they may be doing different kinds of work at the same time. Teachers may have to create a space where some students can work quietly without distraction. Others may require space to work collaboratively. The key to making this work is for the teacher to create a safe and inviting atmosphere in the classroom and to set clear guidelines and routines when students are working independently or in collaborative groups.
Mobile computing devices with continuous access to the Internet for every student can help support the transition from a teacher-centered to a differentiated learning environment. In this one-to-one environment, students have freedom of location: They can work in small groups, individually, or in large groups, inside or outside the classroom, and the teacher has more time for one-on-one interaction with students.
Teachers often fear that they will have to create a separate lesson plan for each student if they are going to differentiate instruction. Technology is a powerful tool that can also help personalize instruction. The first step is to assess students’ readiness, abilities, and interests and then use this data to guide instruction. There are many online tools and software programs that can be used for these assessments. Teachers can set up online interest surveys through free online survey tools.
The National Center on Student Progress Monitoring provides information on progress- monitoring tools that track and chart students’ progress over time.
After teachers analyze the assessment data, they can set up flexible groups based on a number of things, such as abilities and interests. Students can then work through digital content and process new concepts and skills with an array of digital tools that are fun and engaging. There are also a wide variety of digital options that allow students to explore their creativity.
Furthermore, tools, such as wikis, blogs, social-networking sites, email, and Google docs, provide opportunities for students to collaborate in meaningful ways not only in their own classroom, but also with students and professionals around the world.
Finally, by using technology to differentiate instruction, teachers promote 21stcentury skills and provide opportunities for students to develop digital literacy as well as inventive thinking and effective communication skills. The bottom line is that integrating technology into the differentiated classroom helps personalize instruction, enhances learning with multimedia components, and can help engage and motivate students.