The NCLB Effect

Though there has been much debate about No Child Left Behind’s methods and effectiveness in the four years since its inception, one fact is clear: NCLB has caused a major shift in how school districts plan for and use technology. School CIO took a snapshot of two U.S. school districts—Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, Virginia and Round Rock Independent School District in Round Rock, Texas—to assess the impact of NCLB on K–12 technology planning and implementation.

Building a Data-Driven Culture

Fairfax County Public Schools is one of the largest K–12 districts in the country,serving 165,000 students each year in 234 schools and learning centers and employing almost 22,000 staff members. The district’s annual operating budget is a whopping $2 billion and the per-student spending cost is close to $12,000. Without a doubt, says Ted Davis, director of enterprise information services at FCPS, No Child Left Behind has had a significant impact on the district’s IT planning. Davis highlights three major initiatives that in large part address NCLB’s data reporting and student achievement requirements.

  • The Education Decision Support Library (EDSL) system is a massive custom-built data warehouse, a decision support tool, and a central reporting source for tens of millions of student records. EDSL is comprised of modules that enable a wide array of different student data configurations; this data is then presented to classroom and administrative staff in a variety of useful graphical and numeric formats.
  • The Benchmark Assessment Reporting Tool (BART) from the Princeton Review is a Web-based tool with a strong correlation with the SOL (Standards of Learning) standardized tests used by the State of Virginia to assess student progress and knowledge. “BART gives timely feedback to teachers and principals about how well students are performing," says Davis. “[It’s] an interim measure, giving us a valid predictor test, helping to identify where students may need remediation.”
  • The Curriculum Assessment Initiative (CAI) is an in-house development effort FCPS is conducting with Blackboard, who contributes the learning portal and assessment engine used in CAI. Slated to pilot in the next calendar year, the system will link students’ online progress assessments with a database that helps identify instructional resources needed to provide effective and personalized remediation. FCPS is building this linking repository, while Blackboard does the scoring and provides immediate feedback to teachers and students, identifying the most appropriate remediation resources in each case. CAI is tied into the learning standards set by FCPS (and tested for in Virginia's SOLs), and the entire system will feed back into EDSL, allowing administrators and staff to closely track students’ mastery over time against the established standards.

NCLB has also affected the district’s infrastructure needs, in part because students are increasingly taking Virginia’s Standards of Learning test online. "[The] number of students taking online SOLs is now over 150,000 and growing, and the need to provide that kind of connectivity has certainly had an impact on our overall infrastructure," says Davis. One clear benefit of the online testing, however, is that schools receive their testing results within 24 hours. Those results, entered into the EDSL system, then allow staff at all levels to get near–real time data on students’ performance. More information available in a timely manner means more opportunities to improve weak areas.

Naturally, FCPS hopes that obtaining timely and accurate mid-year data will result in a direct improvement in test scores, making the NCLB-driven investments in data collection and analysis pay off in spades. Whether that investment also translates into a better overall education for students is still an open question.

A Legacy of Assessment

At Round Rock Independent School District in central Texas, executive director of information services Ed Zaiontz deploys technology to more than 37,000 students across 42 facilities; the enrollment growth rate over the previous five years has been 21 percent. Not surprisingly, Round Rock ISD is pursuing several NCLB-related technology solutions, particularly in the area of assessment.

One major initiative designed to address NCLB demands is a comprehensive data warehouse. Much like Fairfax County’s ESDL project, the warehouse gives district administrators and individual classroom teachers access to quantitative information about their students. Zaiontz says that there's been a lot of work on benchmark assessments, too, with the goal of giving educators ample time to intervene and remediate problems prior to the administration of standardized tests. Round Rock employs an innovative—if informal—assessment tool: Turning Point software used in conjunction with handheld “clickers.” The clickers work much like quiz-show buzzers; teachers ask questions, students buzz in, and teachers get immediate feedback about students’ understanding of the material. "[While the Turning Point clickers] certainly weren't driven entirely by NCLB, [they were] driven by an increased emphasis on assessing student learning,” says Zaiontz.

While the clickers have been successfully adopted by students and staff, in general there’s less technology training, says Zaiontz. “Most of the time our teachers are tied up in other staff development, certainly all worthwhile things, such as curriculum alignment, assessment, analyzing data, all to make sure we’re doing as well as we can on the standardized tests,” he says. The implication here is simple: Schools that have a greater chance of not performing well on the test tend to hunker down and deliver a more basic, set curriculum, with less room for technology and innovation. The result may be an increasing divide between technology "haves" and "have-nots," as high-functioning campuses have the time and leisure to adopt more forward-looking technology.

Round Rock may have quantifiable evidence to back up this observation in a few months. The district is a key participant in Dell's Intelligent Classroom Project, working in conjunction with MGT America. Round Rock ISD, Dell, and MGT have been analyzing math, social studies, science, and art instruction in each school. Preliminary indications suggest that schools with better test scores get increasingly more technology integration, while those with the poorest scores have increasingly less technology over time.

“We do see that technology integration has resulted in positive results in terms of attendance, disciplinary statistics, and attitudes. That [data] will be as critical as the grades and test scores: do kids feel like they're more engaged? And if students are more engaged, our hope is that it will have impact on achievement. We'll have hard-core data on that by the end of this year,” says Zaiontz.

Richard Hoffman is contributing editor of School CIO.

Innovation Left Behind

Is NCLB changing teachers’ tech focus?

Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that the impact of NCLB on smaller to mid-sized districts may be greater than on larger districts. Larry Cline, director of technology/networking at Community Consolidated School District 21 in Wheeling, Illinois, a 13-school district with a $73 annual budget, says NCLB has changed how technology is being used in his district. “In general, there's more of a focus on using technology in an assessment role…with an increase in the significance in test scores. In some ways, that's a good thing,” says Cline. "[NCLB] gives us a direction, but one concern is that it may be narrowing the scope of instruction too much. We see less of the constructivist focus—WebQuest and other programs with multidisciplinary approaches—and more of a focus on particular skills.”

Why the change? “Teachers have become acutely test-conscious,” says Cline. “Whereas they may have taken a risk on a new technology project in the past, they're more reluctant now, because it's perceived as taking time away from skill development, time which could be used to focus on raising a specific test score.” In addition to the time factor, Cline says there’s fear among K–12 educators that they are slipping back into “drill and kill” mode, abandoning more creative and forward-looking uses for technology. —RH