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Change everything: in Texas and Arizona, frequent site-based assessments performed on handhelds get fed into district databases for immediate use. As a result, instructional changes happen quickly, and the districts are meeting goals and changing lives-now.

"Time is not our friend at the moment," observes Vilma Garza, the principal of the General Ricardo Sanchez Elementary School. "We're faced with the challenge of accountability and making the right decisions about intervention. Year after year, it seems like the state is requiring us to assess earlier in the school year."

For Garza's school in the Rio Grande (Texas) Consolidated School District, just across from the Mexican border, the challenge of passing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skill--and meeting the requirements of the No Child Left Behind act--is especially great since 87 percent of the student body qualifies as economically disadvantaged and 50 percent as limited English proficient.

The stakes in succeeding also have increased, thanks to a state requirement that third graders must pass the TAKS in order to move on to fourth grade.

So two years ago, Garza purchased palmOne handhelds for all students in grades 3-5, plus Tango (, an administrative software program for the Palm OS that lets teachers collect and analyze data from tests, homework and in-class projects. Together, the handhelds and Tango software allow Garza and her teachers to take some pretty fancy steps in meeting their assessment goals.

"We were trying to find a software program and a device that could give immediate feedback so we could make decisions to redirect our instruction, identify our weak areas and be able to implement strategies without having to wait the two or three weeks it would take to do it manually." Garza explains. "This tool provides the opportunity to drill down to individual students and their identified needs and allows us to utilize every single minute to make decisions."

Meeting Standards Made Easier

For third-grade teacher Teresa Ramirez, figuring out what students were and were not learning once meant grading piles of tests and crunching the numbers over several days. Now, she uses her handheld to create answer keys for multiple-choice, true-false, and short-answer tests in science, math, spelling and reading.

She gets results when students punch responses into their own units and beam of send them back to her via HotSync. The Tango program matches those responses to the Texas state standards, and the newly minted tests go into a bank for use in future classes. (Tango is in almost 40 Texas districts, and its creator Liberty Solutions is now adapting it to other state standards.)

"As soon us a student is done plugging in his answers, I know exactly the grade and most importantly, what objectives that student was notable to master, so that I don't have to wait until days later to redirect the learning," says Ramirez. Students who miss or do not finish particular quizzes get reminders from their handhelds.

"I can get a percentage of students that have passed a particular objective," Ramirez adds. "I can also get a class average. There's just so much that we are able to get and utilize that now I don't know what we'd do without the handhelds."

"It's wonderful," agrees fellow third-grade teacher Orpha Avila, who assesses her students almost daily. "I don't have to go home pressured to check papers for the next day. My weekends are off, and I can come back to an environment where the only thing I worry about is teaching because I've got my grades for the week."

Real-Time Data for Administrators

The data that Ramirez, Avila and their colleagues collect mores up the system, and in a hurry. "It guarantees us that the teacher is actually teaching what the state is expecting the student to learn, and I'm able to monitor that we do teach those expectations," says principal Garza. Conferences with teachers have become more productive as well, from providing staff development to devising tutorials to erase student deficits. Now Garza sits down with a teacher, and both simply pull out their handhelds.

"We do a lot of assessment," notes Garza. "In the olden days, it would take two to three weeks before we could actually come up with data that we could use."

"What happened was that the data was no longer valid of reliable," adds Rio Grande superintendent Roel Gonzalez. "The kids were two or three weeks beyond the testing content. Campus principals need to understand where their campus is at that moment so that they can realign curriculum and restructure any sort of remediation or enrichment projects.

"Every time I meet with my principals, I'll ask them, 'What's the plan of action?' They can't tell me the plan of action for last week or the week before. I want to know how they reevaluated and adjusted their game plan for right now."

How much of a difference this approach makes will become clearer when Rio Grande's elementary schools get back this year's TAKS results. Garza points to some promising signs at her school from last year. While 33 of 89 third graders did not pass the TAKS, the numbers failing fell to five on their second attempt and to only one on the third attempt. Garza credits the palmOne program with helping to make up the deficits. And she predicts that more than 80 percent of third graders will pass on their first attempt this year, enough to win the state's designation as a "recognized" campus.

The data collected by the handhelds also lets teachers generate individual student progress reports for parents.

More Bang for the Buck

The handhelds are also making an impact on the Rio Grande district because of their affordability. Gonzalez, who embraced the program when he arrived as superintendent last fall, is excited by the benefits of affordability he has discovered with handhelds.

"If I had a lab [of] 25 computers, that would [cost] $50,000," he figures. "Do you know how many handhelds I could buy for $50,000? And that's only one lab!"

The handheld program has become a fixture in grades 2-5 for all of Rio Grande's elementary schools. The recent purchase of 1,000 palmOne handhelds brought the district's holdings to 2,500. Together with the Tango software, IT support and staff development, the palmOne project has cost about $500,000 in E-Rate, TIFT and local funds.

Parents, meanwhile, are asking for handhelds in the first grade, and Gonzalez is envisioning handhelds for all 10,000 K-12 students within three years, at an additional $500,000 cost.

"I want each high school student to have one, like a textbook," he says. "We'll have a kiosk, and the students will be able to download their homework, go on the Internet, and get all of the information just by using their handheld. We're not only going to use it for assessment and having students monitor their own progress. We're going to use it to teach our kids personal management--how to take control of their lives. It's an organizer, and we want to teach them to be organized and concise."

A Place in Paradise

The Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Ariz., is using its collection of palmOoe Tungsten Cs (with built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi) and other models to develop its own assessment tool.

"We started out last year with an idea driven by oar principals," notes Jeff Billings, the district's information technology director. "They said, 'What we really need is a rapid way to collect formative assessment data.' So we came up with the concept of a 'testlet.'"

Testlets consist of five to eight Tier 1 questions, generated by teachers to test basic understanding of the materials they are teaching and to match Arizona state standards. Grades 3-6 students in more than a third of the district's elementary schools can receive several testlets a day. Students use the infrared or Wi-Fi technology of their palmOne handhelds to beam answers to several TriBeam infrared or Wi-Fi LAN access points ( around the classroom. Billings says students are buying into frequent assessment because the Paradise Valley's handheld program has removed the drudgery from taking tests and instilled the excitement of real-time results.

"Students want to know how they're doing," he says. "What's also fascinating is that teachers can post testlet results on a large electronic screen in front of the class, with just the student ID numbers. Seeing quantitative answers by student and by test item lets teachers adjust for %he teaching moment.'"

Billings and his staff are also developing longer Tier 2 standardized tests, which could be administered several times a year to all students.

"We asked, 'What would happen if we created a 130-question math test? Could we reduce teacher and administrative time in grading? We piloted the test last year at the high-school level and principals estimated that it saved 80 to 100 hours of grading."

Sixth graders, meanwhile, have been taking their handhelds home, using them to keep track of their assignments and taking advantage of the district's wireless network to turn their handhelds into electronic lesson books. Significantly more students are now completing their homework assignments, Billings says.

This year seventh graders received handhelds as part of the district's four-year plan, which eventually could equip all middle and high school students in Paradise Valley. Along the way, the handhelds have kept the process simple. "One of the advantages that palmOne brings is a kinder, simpler technology," Billings explains. "Teachers know how to troubleshoot. Kids know how to troubleshoot. It's a distinct advantage."

Billings is also building digital grade books that will allow teachers to integrate the standards they have to meet, while instantaneously capturing and transmitting the testlet information.

"We're nowhere near finished," he says. "We took off on this journey, and we believed we could find technology that could be used in the classroom for assessment, collection, recording, curriculum and communication. So far, we like where we're at."

Ronald Schachter is a freelance education writer based in Newton, Mass.
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Title Annotation:Assessment
Author:Schachter, Ron
Publication:District Administration
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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