No Child Left Behind has made data-driven decision making a national movement, forcing districts to focus their use of technology on collecting, analyzing, and acting on student data. I believe this is a good thing. In fact, I would argue our current obsession with using technology for testing and analysis is a necessary detour, and that the use of technology for instruction will ultimately be better because of this journey.
At the first stage of the journey, educators wake up to the significance of data but still lack the knowledge, skills, or motivation to analyze it. They begin to see that state accountability reports and Web sites like www.schoolmatters.com have performance messages for their schools, but they don't yet understand how to interpret those messages or craft a realistic plan of action.
At stage two, educators start to use the data behind those reports and Web sites to zero in on student performance. They scrutinize students' test results, looking for strengths and weaknesses and rates of progress—anything that might suggest an opportunity to maximize achievement and meet NCLB goals. This focus on test scores often leads to fairly unimaginative uses of technology—like drill-and-kill tutorial software—to make quick gains. But such efforts don't address the question of how to sustain achievement over the long term.
Anyone who has spent enough time at stage two knows you don't sustain improvement in students' performance by focusing on standardized test scores.
Enter stage three. Schools in this stage concentrate on instruction and feedback. To support this work, they use instructional management systems that collect, organize, and analyze classroom assessment data. They load the systems with curricular, instructional, and assessment materials teachers can use to support their daily work and customize instruction. Some also have students routinely complete and submit classroom work with computers.
That is how instructional technology gets saved. Because accountability now frames technology's classroom role, the focus is on productive instructional purposes. Educators at this point seek out applications that support and extend quality instruction and provide assessment data as a by-product. For example, the Concord Consortium offers simulations that teach topics like genetics while automatically generating formative assessment data. Similarly, ETS has developed an automated essay scoring tool that gives students more writing practice and feedback than their teachers can provide alone.
As such innovations multiply and spread, we will see technology being used to integrate assessment and instruction. The applications students use will gather and synthesize diagnostic information about everything they do. This data will provide richer and more reliable assessments of student achievement than standardized tests, and teachers will use them in real time to guide their work.
When this happens, technology will be demonstrably part of excellent teaching and learning. It will be unheard of for affluent and well-educated communities like Cobb County, Georgia, to reject student laptop programs as a waste of taxpayer money, as was reported last month. And the innovative teachers, who will not have ceased their efforts in the face of NCLB, will find a newly appreciative audience of colleagues who know why they, too, want to use technology and what student achievement they expect from its use.
Peter Robertson is former CIO of the Cleveland Municipal School District.