States Enlisting Online Tools To Help Promote Standards

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Nearly every state has gone to great trouble setting standards for what teachers need to teach and students need to learn. But too often, many educators say, the standards end up sitting in binders on school shelves, unused.

And even if teachers consider the standards when drawing up their lesson plans, they often have no way of predicting how well their students will do on statewide tests that are based on those standards.

But school leaders in Vermont believe they've found a better way. They are in the process of introducing a system of Web-based tools to help teachers make the state standards a more meaningful part of their daily work.

The Vermont system, called Putting Standards Into Action, includes an instructional-planning tool, an assessment-management tool, and an online teacher forum for sharing lessons and resources—all combined with a database of the state's academic standards.

"Putting Standards Into Action is one of our implementation strategies, to be able to really take what is state policy and have that supported in the classroom," Marjorie M. Petit, the state's acting commissioner of education, said in a recent interview. "We've learned in Vermont and nationally that standards-based education is not just about the [quality of the] standards," she said, "but about how the standards are being implemented—not just in theory, but in practice."

"Standards just tell you where the kids are supposed to get to; how the teachers get there is left up to them," added Judith Rényi, the executive director of the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, an organization founded by the National Education Association that awards grants for teacher professional development. "What's great about these online aids is they do give some help to teachers."

Other states where online technologies are being deployed to help teachers use state standards include Delaware, Florida, Maine, Maryland, and Texas. Delaware, for example, recently launched a World Wide Web site featuring standards-based science assessments for elementary students.

"This category of educational technology has been in the 'coming soon' category for way too long," said Douglas Walker, the manager of the school- and instructional-support team at the Vermont Department of Education.

Feedback Mechanism

Vermont officials claim their new system, which was developed by the International Business Machines Corp. as part of IBM's Reinventing Education grant program, stands out because of its comprehensiveness and its powerful tool for creating, scoring, and managing student assessments. Any Vermont teacher will be able to access the system, for free, by using a password and an Internet browser from school or home.

Most teachers won't receive training and passwords for the system until after January. But about a hundred got a sneak peek last month during a conference here in Fairlee, a woodsy resort town in eastern Vermont.

The process starts when a teacher logs on to Putting Standards Into Action, creates a lesson, and adds it to a database of classroom activities.

Using the instructional planner, the teacher identifies at least one state academic standard that the lesson will address. The teacher can use key words or reference numbers to search through a database of the state standards, as well as other widely accepted standards such as those written by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

The lesson is saved in a central database run by the state education department. From the database, if the teacher so chooses, it can be called up by other teachers to use in their classrooms. State officials envision that Vermont teachers will gradually build a vast collection of lessons tailored to the state standards. The database will also include lessons from many other sources.

If students are going to be graded on the lesson, the teacher next turns to the assessment tool.

That tool automatically lists all the standards that the teacher has targeted for the lesson, and asks her to complete a scoring guide, often called a rubric, that breaks out her criteria for success and describes the quality of student work corresponding to various grades or proficiency levels. The teacher can use her preferred scale for judging student performance—a number scale or descriptions such as "needs work" through "superb."

The Vermont system will be able to record the results of the assessments, too, so teachers will be able to analyze how their classes are doing relative to the state standards and revise their curricula as needed.

For example, a 4th grade teacher might be giving mostly high marks to her students on assessments having to do with a set of science standards, but the pupils end up doing poorly in that area on the state test. The teacher would learn that next time, she should push her students harder—or modify her lessons.

"That's exciting," Ms. Rényi said of the assessment tool. "It elevates the importance of teacher-directed assessment, saying that what they are doing is at the heart and soul of learning."

The education department is in the process of creating a database that will include each of the state's 104,000 public school students in grades K-12. In addition to teachers, school and state officials will able to analyze student assessment results, with various levels of access controlled by passwords.

Another feature of the assessment tool allows a teacher to score a sample of student work, such as an essay answer, and compare it with a score assigned by a panel of expert teachers in the state. That exercise—called calibrating or norming—can give teachers, especially those in isolated areas, a better idea of what they should expect from their students, state officials say.

Vermont officials say they are taking pains to provide teachers with enough training to use the online system. An ambitious professional-development strategy includes the Vermont Institute for Science, Math, & Technology, which has a cadre of five teachers on leave from their classrooms to help colleagues in five regions. Members of that cadre will train teachers who will, in turn, train others.

Will Teachers Use It?

One factor working in Vermont's favor is that, since the late 1980s, the state has been a leader in developing assessments based on portfolios of student work and in training teachers in how to evaluate student performance. That experience might give Vermont teachers more ability and inclination to use the online assessment tool, compared with teachers elsewhere, Ms. Rényi said.

Educators at the recent state conference showed interest in the new online system, though some wondered if it would be worth the time to learn it. "There are not enough hours in the day'' to learn another technology, said Mary Prior, a librarian at Barnet Elementary School in upstate Vermont.

Joyce Morris, an education professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington, said the system, which will be available to preservice teachers, would help them learn how to prepare lesson plans. "We make them link to the standards as it is,'' she said.

"I think the difficulty will be access," Ms. Morris added. "There are still schools in the state that have only one computer that is linked to the Internet." In some rural areas, dial- up access is slow.

Douglas H. Snow, the state's implementation director for the project, replied that the system designers deliberately kept the Web tools lean; they will work acceptably with a low-end 28.8 kps modem, he said.

Experts outside the state had not seen the system, but praised the concept.

"It sounds like a really good idea, but the devil's in the details, like all things," said Jason Ohler, the director of educational technology at the University of Alaska in Juneau. "It's all going to come down to whether teachers view it positively, and then use it. If teachers of Vermont perceive this as being top-down, they could kill it. Instead of having binders gathering dust, they'll have hard drives gathering dust."

Eva L. Baker, the director of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing in Los Angeles, cautioned that such a system benefits students only if the standards themselves—which vary considerably from state to state—are academically valuable and clearly written, and if teachers have the time and training to create good lessons and rubrics.

"Teacher-created rubrics are mostly disasters," she said. "They're fine for classroom practice, but not fine for anyone else."

One reason, a CRESST study found, is that teachers often vary in their bases of content knowledge. "That means the way they use rubrics are very different," Ms. Baker said.

The problem is exacerbated in school systems that are large and have a high turnover of teachers, Ms. Baker added. But she acknowledged that "Vermont is little enough that maybe it can pull this off—given the orientation they have and the culture of that system, all the way back to its earlier portfolio efforts.''

IBM also hopes the system will be successful in Vermont. The company would like to sell a commercial version of the tool set—to be added to its "Wired for Learning" brand of school-information products—to states and school districts nationwide.

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Page 5

Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as States Enlisting Online Tools To Help Promote Standards
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