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Article of Interest - Testing & Assessment

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Student Testing is Causing a Shift in Tech Spending
Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, San Antonio Express-News, June 21, 2005
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Public schools pressured to keep up with state and federal testing requirements are spending millions on high-tech systems to track and catalog their kids at the same time the federal government is cutting funding for the very same technology.

The result: Instead of buying laptops for students or updating old hardware, school systems are raiding technology budgets to pay for data systems that keep track of test scores.

The mammoth systems, which give teachers instant access to student information and pinpoint weak academic areas, are fast becoming part of the education landscape nationwide.

In January, the U.S. Department of Education released the National Education Technology Plan a requirement of President Bush's education reform law, No Child Left Behind. The plan's recommendations include using data systems to boost performance.

But the federal government isn't likely to help school districts pay for the expensive systems. Just three weeks after the technology plan was unveiled, the Bush administration proposed cutting out the $496 million technology grant fund for public schools.

Critics say spending millions on systems that essentially are designed to boost standardized test scores and meet state and federal accountability standards is a waste.

"Put it toward music education, the arts, more science education, put it toward technology for kids to actually use in the classroom, by gosh," said Marlene Heringer, parent of a middle-schooler in the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City School District. "Don't waste it on the outcome of a standardized test."

The goal of setting up a colossal, one-stop system for information on grades, test performance and teacher qualification is to raise test scores and student achievement and meet the extensive reporting requirements of No Child Left Behind.

To accomplish that, school districts around the country are turning to private technology and information management companies to help them set up Web-based data systems to track students and teachers and help identify weaknesses.

The idea is that by extensively tracking students' past performance and making that information available to teachers in a timely manner, teachers can individualize instruction to give kids a better chance of passing standardized tests.

When the school year begins in August, Northside School District teachers will be able to find out almost anything they need to know about their new students before the kids even walk in the door.

With a computer keystroke, educators will have access to an academic biography of their students detailed test scores, report card information, attendance history that as recently as last year took weeks to compile.

"The goal is to hopefully make the teachers' jobs easier," said Linda Mora, Northside's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Mora said the system will help do more than simply raise test scores. She expects to see an increase in overall student achievement. "Teachers will know who their students are and where they are academically when the doors open on Aug. 22."

Northside is contracting with a company called SchoolNet to set up its data management system. The company also serves Judson School District and Austin- and Corpus Christi-area districts. Northside's cost to set up the system and maintain it for five years: $2.2 million.

"When you get right down to it, you're talking about a fraction of the toilet paper budget," SchoolNet CEO Jonathan Harber said. "Across the country, schools spend almost $7,000 per student per year. We're talking about spending $5 per student, $10 per student (for a data management system.)"

In Northside, district officials are using money from a 2004 bond to pay for the computer system. Kelly Smith, the district's assistant superintendent for technology services, said money that pays for student computers and software wasn't affected by the purchase.

But most school districts do use money from technology budgets to pay for the systems.

In its annual national study on technology use in schools, the trade magazine Education Week found 15 states, including Texas, are focusing more technology funding on data management and collection as a direct result of No Child Left Behind requirements.

"Our sense this year is there were major changes taking place in the world of technology spending and our report found that was indeed the case," said Kevin Bushweller, a project editor for Education Week.

"The biggest change is the shifting emphasis in spending to data management systems and away from getting better instructional technology into classrooms. Underlying the trend is a major philosophical shift in the White House concerning the role of technology in schools."

Dan Troxell, superintendent of Kerrville School District, has no problem justifying spending $22,500 for a tracking system that he believes will reap huge benefits for the 4,800 kids in his district.

Kerrville's system is based on predicting how students should perform on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and determining if students truly made progress.

Because the district is small statistically such predictions can only be made with a large data set Troxell recruited nine other school districts, including Alamo Heights, Pleasanton and South San Antonio, to form a consortium and pool their test scores. Each district pays roughly $1,500 per school for the service.

The districts send their information to San Antonio-based psychologist and statistician David Ramirez, who uses what he calls the INOVA process to determine how much progress a student is making from year to year and pinpoint weak areas for teachers.

The INOVA system places each student in one of five color categories: red students are predicted to fail the test; yellows are likely to fail; gray students have a 50-50 chance of passing; blue students are likely to pass; and greens will probably do well and, with help, have the potential to ace the test.

Troxell said the color-coding system, which also provides a list of each student's strengths and weaknesses and a list of academic interventions and recommended teaching methods, is a powerful tool that helps teachers individualize instruction for every child.

"Usually what you see is data related to how to score well on a test, but not data on individual performance," he said. "You can have children that passed the test that didn't actually grow from year to year, or you can have children that had great growth but failed the test because they didn't meet the standard. We want every child to meet their full potential."

Troxell believes in accountability and the goals of No Child Left Behind, but he said the federal government should be doing its share to fund accountability measures.

"These systems cost money. Testing kids costs millions of dollars, then analyzing and putting intervention programs in place is extremely expensive, but if you look at the funding it's not there," Troxell said.

Judson School District has been using a data management system to boost test scores for three years, which makes it a veteran customer in the new booming business. The district spent $383,000 for a five-year contract with SchoolNet.

Assistant Superintendent Charlie Neumeyer pulled from several budgets, including individual schools' technology accounts that cover the cost of new computers and software for classrooms, to pay for the service.

"It's a balancing act, but right now, given the state of education, that data is valuable," Neumeyer said. "Knowing every piece of information you can about each student has become important."     

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