Long, long ago, in some mythical classroom of the lost world, if you wanted to know how well a student was learning, you'd just ask the teacher. Teachers then not only had eyes in the back of their heads, but powerful eyes all around that could read the body language of 30 students at once, zero in on one child's scrawl while evaluating another's doodles, and see which kids added with their fingers and which read with their lips.
What's more, these teachers had ears that could distinguish diphthongs at 20 paces, hear the difference between hesitation and processing in any split-second pause before a student's answer, and tell whether Johnny was going to have a bad spelling day by the sound of his footsteps in the hall.
It's not just that teachers back then were endowed with hyper-senses, they also possessed special brain capacity that allowed them to correlate and categorize all they observed into a well-rounded, deeply accurate picture of what each child knew and was able to do. That picture guided what the teacher did each day and shifted with each new observation. And it made the teacher an invaluable adviser to parents.
Seeing vs. Testing Some might argue that all of this is true of good teachers today, here in the real world. The only difference now is that we don't quite trust human perception and expert judgment to evaluate student performance. We want hard, objective data: standards, benchmarks and test scores.
Yet the gulf between what teachers see and where the percentiles fall need not seem so immense. Technology can be the bridge.
While everyone else focuses on making sure no child is left behind in the standardized testing stampede, a few technology renegades are asking: How can we help teachers get more from the data right in front of their noses every day? How can technology help turn observation into assessment?
A Few Visionaries Sunburst Technology (www.sunburst.com) may get the prize for tilling this soil the longest. When it was first released in the mid-1990s, Sunburst's original Learner Profile software seemed so ... 21st century. And yet, just this spring, Sunburst announced Learner Profile 3.0, which works on Palms and Visors. With LP3, teachers set up rubrics based on their school's standards and learning objectives, make notations on the fly as they observe student work, then sync their data back to their desktop PCs. They can create personalized or group reports that analyze, categorize and graph their observations; share the data with students, administrators and parents via paper or over the Web; even enter it into an electronic gradebook. This is assessment without stopping instruction dead in its tracks.
For some subjects and grade levels, observational assessment is already part of the terrain. Take early literacy. The process of learning to read is not merely observable-it's been scrupulously and painstakingly documented. "Running records" is a common term of art among first grade teachers. That's why Wireless Generation (www.wgen.net), a small startup company, has made such a splash with its early reading assessment suite, developed in conjunction with core text publishers. While working with students one-on-one or observing their reading activities, teachers enter observations into their PDAs-and get back both evaluative information and tips on how to help advance reading mastery. The collected data is then synched (wirelessly, if teachers so choose) with the desktop PC or classroom server and compiled into reports.
Straight from the Source Even without the teacher as an intermediary, technology can gauge children's learning from what they say or how they move. Working first with the Philadelphia schools and then with the Houston Independent School District, IBM has developed software called Watch-me-Read that uses voice recognition technology to keep track of the words and combinations a student struggles with while reading an onscreen story aloud. Some researchers are also looking at sensors that pick up learning cues from children's eye and hand movements while they work on a computer.
No matter how the observational data is gathered, though, it still takes a skilled teacher to know what to do with it all-to turn those elaborate reports into an action plan for student learning. That's just as true now as it ever was.
Mickey Revenaugh, email@example.com, is vice pres. at Sylvan Ventures. Formerly, she helped launch the E-rate program.