Web-based assessment tools help schools without burdening network

By Pam Derringer

Web-based student-assessment tools are growing in popularity, and this popularity shows no signs of abating. They save time, enable schools to customize remedial or enrichment tools for specific skills, and automate state and national reporting. Depending on the program, students may even be able to complete the assignments at home. Collectively, they are transforming education, enabling schools to tailor learning to specific student needs.

“No Child Left Behind is driving this,” says Joe Jenkins, chief technology officer of Natomas United School District (Calif.) near Sacramento. “Schools need more data.” Assessments also often help teachers address the needs of the “forgotten middle” group. And they fit our natures as “digital clickers.” “We want instant feedback,” Jenkins says.

In Charlotte County schools in Port Charlotte, Florida, Web-based assessment programs are becoming increasingly common for individualized learning at the elementary- and middle-school levels and are starting to expand into high schools, according to Chris Bress, director of learning.

Vendors like CompassLearning have taken online assessment tools to the next level, not simply converting materials to the Web but developing “quite engaging” multimedia flash content that is fun, uses humor effectively, and targets kids’ interests, Bress says. “The goal is to make the content so appealing that kids will want to do the lessons.” CompassLearning, he adds, was also one of the first to create Web-based lessons the students can access from home.

There’s also a big push currently to use assessment for credit retrieval, says Bress, helping kids get up –to speed in areas they failed or for English as a Second Language instruction, and another, concurrent push to use assessment tools for enrichment. “By no means are assessment programs a replacement for a teacher; they just give teachers another tool in their arsenal,” he says.

In the Rochester (N.Y.) School District, assessment tools and tests are increasingly important in measuring the effectiveness of academic interventions for individual students, as well as of particular programs like summer school, tutoring and extended day care. “Everything is so goal-driven that we need metrics,” says Dr. Tim Cliby, coordinating director of instructional technology.

The schools use programs from Acuity and McGraw-Hill, for example, to perform pre- and post-assessments that drive personalized instruction and measure progress, according to Glen Van Derwater, associate director for benchmark testing. They also use computer-based Scholastic reading inventory tests to establish benchmarks, Cliby adds.

The network cost of assessment programs

But there’s both an upside and a downside to these Web-based tools. The upside is that Web-based applications require less bandwidth and server processing than older applications running on school servers. The downside: Collectively, they still can put a dent in network availability, and can sometimes complicate the process of deploying and updating applications. A key difference IT staff should address up front when adding new assessment programs is whether they are truly Web-based applications that run on the vendor’s servers and can be accessed from anywhere (including home) or whether they must be installed with a CD on school servers, after which students are able to access the programs by computer.

According to Van Derwater, online and Web-based assessment programs are equally common, with the more interactive, flash-based programs more likely to be online, because they require more bandwidth. Because Rochester has 13,000 computers districtwide, he says, integrating the specific components required to run online programs into the central image that is used to deploy, provision, and update machines can result in a lot of manual work for the IT department.

To minimize the impact of new assessment programs on the network, the IT staff now join instructional specialists at the vendor proposal meetings and require the vendor to spell out the network impact of a new application prior to any purchase, says Cliby. If the program is online (i.e., not Web-based), he continues, Rochester will require the vendor to provide a Microsoft Installer package to automate the software deployment. “Vendors are becoming very savvy,” Cliby says. “They know if they are coming to Rochester, they need a process or plan in place to install their application across the network.”

Charlotte County’s IT staff also takes an active role with instructional specialists in deciding which new assessment programs will be added and where they will be available (e.g., in any classroom or just in a computer lab), and then planning for local area network (LAN) upgrades accordingly, according to Bress. For some video-intensive programs, like Scholastic’s Read 180, he says, the schools direct users to wired computers to avoid adding to the load of the wireless network. Another factor in weighing Web-based versus online programs is home access for students, which could pose a security risk, says Van Derwater, if the applications are running on school computers instead of a vendor’s Web site.The Network Crunch

Networks are definitely feeling the bandwidth pressure as assessment programs and other applications grow in number and robustness, forcing them into never-ending upgrades. Rochester’s network, for example, is running at full capacity from a variety of uses, Van Derwater says, with endless demands for more bandwidth, bigger connections, and faster switches, and with no one application at fault. As in most districts, the choke point is the Internet connection, which typically is a fraction of the gigabit-sized wide area network connecting the schools. Rochester’s solution, says Cliby, is to prevent slowdowns by working with assessment vendors to pull their applications inside the school network.

Charlotte County’s solution is to install caching servers for temporary storage of Web pages; these servers store recently retrieved assessment programs locally, explains Bress, with no perceptible difference to the user. The Florida school district also uses Blue Coat Systems Inc. to prioritize network traffic according to importance, he adds, ensuring, for example, that group assessment tests aren’t invalidated because of network problems; the school district also keeps tabs on network traffic with several monitoring programs. Despite these steps, Port Charlotte’s network pressures are going to accelerate even more, thanks to the new Fair state assessment test mandated this fall. In addition, says Bress, Port Charlotte will start administering end-of-year algebra tests online next spring, a trend that is going to gather speed.

One school district that doesn’t have to worry about its need for a growing Internet connection is the Garnet Valley (Pa.) School District in Glen Mills, west of Philadelphia. According to technology director Paul San Francesco, Garnet Valley has increased its use of Web-based tools like CompassLearning for elementary math, as well as Achieve3000’s KidBiz3000 for elementary reading and its TeenBiz3000 for middle- and high-school reading. “The technology behind these tools is much easier and more accessible for everyone,” enabling kids to practice from home and special-needs students to take extra time, says San Francesco.

But Garnet Valley is fortunate to have all the Internet bandwidth it could possibly need, he adds, because Widener University shares its enormous Internet pipe with Garnet Valley and other Delaware County schools for a modest cost. “It’s a nice partnership and removes the burden of expanding the back-end equipment for us.”

Assessment Resources

American Education Corporation (www.amered.com)
Autoskill (www.autoskill.com)
Carnegie Learning (www.carnegielearning.com)
Compass Learning (www.compasslearning.com)
Curriculum Associates (www.curriculumassociates.com)
Discovery Discovery Education Assessment (www.discoveryeducation.com/products/assessment/)
Harcourt Achieve (www.northstarachieve.com)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (www.hmhco.com)
Imagination Station: (www.istation.com)
Kaplan, Reading and Math Empowerment (www.kaplank12.com)
Lexia (www.LexiaLearning.com)
McMillan/McGraw Hill (www.mhschool.com)
MindPlay RAPS (www.mindplay.com)
OnCourse Systems (www.oncoursesystems.com)
Pearson Assessment (www.pearsonassessments.com)
PLATO Courses (www.plato.com)
Princeton Review (www.princetonreview.com)
Schoolnet (www.schoolnet.com)
SRA/McGraw-Hill (www.sraonline.com)
Voyager (www.voyagerlearning.com)
Wireless Generation (www.wirelessgeneration.com)