To the Editor:
Your May 25, 2005, Testing column headlined “Publishers Roll Out Classroom Tests” reports on these tools without examining the deleterious effects they have on teaching and learning.
My school district purchased Tungsten Learning’s tools and services this year. Tungsten is a division of Edison Schools Inc. Like Harcourt Assessment Inc. and McGraw-Hill Digital Learning, Tungsten provides a Web-based diagnostic test that features a series of multiple-choice questions designed to both help children practice for the state standardized test and give teachers feedback on how well children are doing. The district administrators are very excited. I’m somewhere between worried and sick to my stomach.
Districts such as mine can either (a) train teachers on how to become “assessment literate” and develop this capability internally, or (b) outsource this capability to companies like Tungsten, Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill.
Option (b) provides districts with measurable results right away. Option (a) requires that they wait for results. But in the long run (I’d say two to five years), option (a) starts to show a return on investment.
As teachers in the district become more assessment-literate, they become better teachers. Learning is enhanced as a result, because assessment grows indistinguishable from good teaching practice. Teachers do not simply learn how to interpret and apply performance data from a single source—they instead learn how to create formative assessments that relate to the individual needs and talents of both the teacher and the students. These formative assessments need not be limited only to multiple-choice assessments, as is the case with Tungsten and the others.
Option (b) requires a continual outflow of funds to maintain the services and tools. There is a very strong likelihood that the prices for these tools and services will go up each time the contract is renewed (I work closely with enterprise educational software vendors, so I’m familiar with pricing and costs in this market). Therefore, not only are escalating costs associated with this option, but also a limited return on investment.
In other words, there’s a certain plateau that teachers can reach when using the Tungsten tools and services. After teachers use the system long enough, most of them will become as good as one can possibly get at interpreting and applying the performance data. But districts still have to pay for the tools and services. So they end up paying more for these tools and services, even though their teachers can’t get any better at using them.
Since districts have an unlimited number of ways to approach the issue of becoming assessment-literate in option (a), the initial investment will continue to show returns, as teachers become better at formative-assessment development, share ideas with one another, and continue to receive additional training. This additional training would come at a fraction of the cost of the Tungsten contract, and yet it would ultimately provide a much greater return on investment.
If we train our teachers to become really good at assessment, we nurture them and nourish the environment of our schools. But if we don’t do this and instead task someone else with the project, we miss the opportunity to grow and develop as a community.
Lead Instructional Designer
Montclair State University