IT Infrastructure

Rethinking Testing in the Age of the iPad

By Katie Ash — February 08, 2012 8 min read
Students in Kelly Neuser's kindergarten class at Deer Run Elementary School in East Haven, Conn., use iPads during a reading exercise in December.

In the 3,200-student East Haven schools in Connecticut, elementary teachers did their initial student reading assessments a bit differently this school year.

Instead of using paper and pencil to jot down observations about each of their students and then collecting and analyzing those notes by hand, each teacher used an iPad to collect the information and send it to a centralized database through software from the New York City-based ed-tech company Wireless Generation.

“One of our primary goals was to be able to develop a system that would bring a lot of the data into one place,” says Taylor Auger, a technology-integration teacher in the district who helped incorporate use of the iPads into classrooms. “Previously, the data was processed by hand, and it wasn’t really being put to use effectively. I’m all for data, but that data has to drive instruction.”

Moving assessments onto mobile devices may open the door to quicker feedback for students and teachers as well as richer data, but without proper management of the devices and a strong infrastructure to support them, integrating the devices can be a challenge.

“It’s great to have the technology,” says Erica Forti, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, “but once it’s purchased, there is a management piece involved.”

Leaders in the East Haven district decided to buy 210 iPads when the lease for desktop computers in the elementary schools’ computer labs was up. Instead of replacing those computers, they decided to explore mobile technology.

“We liked the idea of having mobile computing devices, since most of the technology was fixed,” or stationary, says Forti. “It opened up the doors for different types of teaching and learning.”

In addition, having the data collected on the iPads allowed the information to be easily shared with parents during conferences, Forti says.

Maintaining that one-teacher-to-one-student assessment ratio through the mobile devices is also important for students, especially in the earlier grades, says Krista Curran, the general manager of assessment and intervention products for Wireless Generation.

“In the early grades, the [mobile] assessments are used by teachers with their students so it’s less obtrusive, in order to make that interaction friendly to the student,” she says. “The end goal is to provide that immediate access to data that informs instruction.”

(Wireless Generation’s founder and chief executive officer, Larry Berger, is a trustee of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week Digital Directions.)

Making iPads Work

After the East Haven elementary students were initially assessed on their reading levels, the iPads were distributed onto seven carts—one for each elementary school in the district—to be used for instruction.

From a teacher’s standpoint, the iPads are an easy device to use, says Auger. “They can pick it up, turn it on, and use it how they wish,” he says.

“But the ability to do that,” he cautions, “requires a lot of background work from the rest of the technology team that if you do not have, it will not work.”

The district also underwent an upgrade to a fiber-optic wireless network during the 2010-11 school year, which was critical to the success of the iPad implementation, says Auger.

After the initial reading assessments, he says, some teachers have continued to use the iPads for assessment by having students take screenshots of their scores on various educational apps and email the images to the teachers to be stored in the students’ electronic portfolios.

Around the country, mobile devices, such as the iPads used in classes at Deer Run Elementary School, are being utilized primarily for formative assessments rather than high-stakes tests.

“One of the greatest things about the iPad is its versatility,” he says. “It can really be what you want it to be.”

Similarly, the 2,000-student Lowndes County school system in Hayneville, Ala., rolled out 1,100 iPads to teachers in the district last fall with the help of Information Transport Solutions, or ITS, a technology-services company in Wetumpka, Ala.

Students in the district undergo a pre- and post-test every 45 days in core subjects that helps pinpoint where students may need more support, says Lucy Long, the director of professional learning for ITS.

“We use the data from the post-test to really structure how we approach the next 45 days,” she says. In between those assessments, teachers use the iPads to create their own assessments, which are pushed out to the students and then returned to the teacher for data collection, says John Loiselle, an integration technology specialist for ITS.

In addition to using mobile devices to gather observational data, teachers can use the devices to get a glimpse into the thought processes of students, says Reshan Richards, the director of educational technology at Montclair Kimberley Academy, a private school serving grades preK-12 in Montclair, N.J.

“You can gather a lot of data quickly, and you can do a lot of quick checks of understanding in a class, but I’m more interested in the deeper, more qualitative understanding that mobile might bring,” Richards says.

For instance, screencasting, which records what students are doing on the display screens of their devices, allows teachers to see students work through problems without having to stand over their shoulders the whole time, he says.

That kind of assessment on a mobile device turns testing into more than just one number, Richards says. Most schools are hesitant, however, to jump into assessing with mobile devices, he says.

‘Rich Feedback’

But those schools and classrooms that have embraced mobile devices have seen them as a catalyst for change in teaching, learning, and assessment, says Julie Evans, the chief executive officer of the Irvine, Calif.-based Project Tomorrow, a national education nonprofit group that promotes technology use in the classroom.

“The access of having a [mobile] device in your hand changes the way that classroom environment feels,” she says. “Students are walking around with the devices, doing things to get them out of the structured environment of the traditional school.”

And because students feel a sense of connection and ownership over their mobile devices, they feel “enabled to be part of the assessment process,” says Evans.

Christopher Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, also notes the unique relationship between students and their mobile devices. “Kids think of phones as an extension of themselves in a way that they don’t think of with laptops or workstations,” he says. “Part of what you have is this intellectual partnership with your cellphone where you do some of the thinking, and your cellphone does some of the thinking, and then you’re smarter.”

Educators are beginning to tackle how such devices can be used for assessment, taking into consideration screen size and assessment platforms, says Dede. But it’s clear, he says, that mobile devices have potential as assessment tools in at least two ways: asking a question and getting an answer, and recording and capturing a process.

“We can give students some kind of thought question and look at the response they give and understand formatively where they are in their comprehension, and perhaps modify what comes next based on that kind of feedback,” Dede says. “It’s very rich feedback for students on how they’re doing and how to get better.”

Dede is also exploring how mobile devices can be used as assessment tools through “augmented reality,” a process by which students interact with the real world, which is enhanced by information from a mobile device. For example, students in a science class could take mobile devices onto school grounds and use them to identify plants or trees, or students in a history class could use the GPS capabilities on their mobile devices to lead them to sites of historical importance.

Student-Owned Devices

Johnny Kissko, a math teacher for the 2,000-student Frenship High School in the Frenship Independent School District in Texas, is also interested in using augmented reality in his classes.

This school year, Frenship High has changed its policy to allow students to bring their own mobile devices into class at the discretion of the teacher, says Kissko.

Taking advantage of the new policy, Kissko has created worksheets for his classes that use QR, or quick-response, codes that pull up video solutions for the problems his students are working on. To read the QR codes, which are black-and-white barcode-type images, students download apps; when the apps are running, the students hold their devices over the codes to be linked to the website.

Around the country, the mobile devices are being used primarily for formative assessments rather than high-stakes standardized tests.

For example, in the 5,000-student Canby school district, south of Portland, Ore., teachers are using classroom sets of iPod touches to receive quick feedback on where students are in learning their subject matter, says Joe Morelock, the director of technology and innovation for the district.

“We’re doing a lot of formative assessments on them,” Morelock says. Using apps such as iResponse and resources like Google Documents, teachers are able to receive feedback from students and record their own observations about students’ progress, he says.

Teachers have full autonomy in deciding which apps they use and how they use the mobile devices in the classroom, says Morelock. That leeway cuts down on the management load for the district’s technology team.

“The teachers are updating them, syncing them, and they’re finding a thousand different ways to use them,” he says of the devices. “It’s been really incredible, and it really has to do with the ease of using the device, and the teachers really taking the lead.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Tablet Testing

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