Reading & Literacy

District, Company Put Reading Tool on the Market

By Andrew Trotter — June 14, 2005 4 min read
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A suburban Washington school district has joined forces with a company that provides hand-held computer-based systems that teachers can use to assess their students’ reading skills. Both contributed to a new K-3 reading-assessment product that will be marketed to schools nationwide.

The Montgomery County, Md., school district and Wireless Generation Inc. teamed up to develop a new reading-assessment product, above.

If the product lives up to the company’s sales projections, the district could reap royalties from the enterprise in the “seven figures” within three years, school officials said.

The 140,000-student Montgomery County, Md., district has contributed its own paper-and-pencil reading-assessment tool for the business venture. The district’s elementary teachers have used that assessment for about four years, according to John Q. Porter, the district’s deputy superintendent for strategic technology and accountability.

“We’d found it was truly reliable and valid in terms of diagnosing [reading problems] of students, and predicting how they would do on the state test,” Mr. Porter said.

But the paper assessment was time-consuming to administer and produce results, he said.

To address those problems, the district approached Wireless Generation Inc., a New York City-based company that provides assessments on Palm hand-held computers. The company already offered a hand-held-computer version of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, a tool for teachers’ observational assessment of reading developed by reading researchers Roland Good and Ruth Kaminski. The new tool, called mCLASS: Reading 3D software, combines DIBELS and portions of the Montgomery County district’s reading assessment.

Mr. Porter said the two approaches are complementary, with DIBELS “more prescriptive” and focused on decoding text, and the district’s “more of a ‘balanced literacy’ method” that judges each student’s understanding of meaning through context.

Naomi Hupert, a senior research associate for the Center for Children & Technology, a New York City-based research and policy group, said the combined assessments may appeal to many teachers who have a blended approach toward reading instruction. “It’s important to address both issues: If you want teachers to use it, it has to be useful to them,” she said.

Ms. Hupert, who lives in Sebastopol, Calif., has studied Wireless Generation assessments used in schools in New Mexico and taken informal surveys in several other states. “Teachers talked about having sense of ownership of their own data when they administered assessments on the Palm [hand-held computer],” in contrast to their lack of enthusiasm about paper assessments, she said.

Teachers also seem more willing to try the hand-held tools than other kinds of assessment technologies, she said.

In Montgomery County, teachers at 19 elementary schools have used the hand-held tool since January; teachers at the district’s other 107 elementary schools will be trained to use the product this summer.

Larry Berger, the chief executive officer of Wireless Generation, said the hand-held-computer technology allows teachers to use both assessments as quick snapshots of students’ abilities or to track their progress over time. The technology transfers the assessment data to a central database.

Another partner is Harcourt Achieve, based in Austin, Texas, which the publisher of the reading materials used in the Montgomery County assessment. The division of Orlando, Fla.-based Harcourt Inc. will help market the assessment product, Mr. Porter said.

In addition to the royalties, the district will receive discounts on its own subscription to the Wireless Generation software, which has an undiscounted price of $21 per student annually.

Educators’ Group Promotes Computer Science Classes

A new educator association aims to rehabilitate the teaching of computer science in high schools.

Officials of the Computer Science Teachers Association, an online organization launched in April, said they hope to counter what they say is a worrisome decline in the number of students in the United States who study computer science at the high school and college levels.

Interest in computer science has suffered for two primary reasons, said CSTA Executive Director Christine G. Stephenson.

To begin with, computer science, invariably an elective course in high school, has been crowded from the curriculum and students’ schedules by required courses, said Ms. Stephenson, who lives in Eugene, Ore.

Second, she said, “more and more, we’re hearing that students and their parents have been profoundly affected by media coverage of the dot-bombs [of failed high-tech companies] and of outsourcing” of technical jobs to other countries.

“Students unfortunately have the impression that there are no opportunities in computer science,” Ms. Stephenson said.

About 2,000 high school teachers have become members of the new organization, many of them out of concern that the computer-science specialty is in danger, said Virginia Gold, a spokeswoman for the Association for Computing Machinery, which helped the educator association get started.

The new group is based at the headquarters of the ACM, a nonprofit organization in New York City that represents technology professionals in academia and industry. But the new association has its own board of directors.

The teacher group—which has a nine-member advisory committee that includes representatives from high-tech corporations such as Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. as well as prominent universities and organizations such as Princeton University and the College Board—aims to convince federal and state policy makers that computer science is an important, core subject that offers “a really broad range of opportunities” for students once they graduate, Ms. Stephenson said.

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