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Assessment with a New Mindset

Schools of education have a professional responsibility to ensure their programs and graduates produce successful, productive teachers. Today, meeting that responsibility requires using information technologies to both gather information on a teaching candidate’s performance, as well as to assess that candidate against unfolding national standards. The College of Education at the University of Central Arkansas has shown that portals can help.

IT systems are becoming a necessity in the assessment field, because in the last few years a shift has occurred in how initial teacher licensing is earned. This in turn has institutions scrambling to revise syllabi or in some cases entire programs. With the Educational Testing Service (ETS) introducing a new three-tiered Praxis series of exams, new teachers will no longer take their final examinations on paper or computer. Praxis III has an ETS-certified examiner coming to each new beginning teacher’s classroom and taking a hard look at their teaching effectiveness in action.

Reflective Decision Makers

The College of Education revamped its teacher training programs to reflect the changes in standards-based and performance-based teacher education. These changes went well beyond minor modifications to syllabi. An entire new mindset was adopted that requires our programs to train candidates to become “reflective decision makers.” The ability to self-assess is implied in this way of thinking.

We made several key decisions designed to prepare our teaching candidates and align our programs to national standards. We realized that in order to assess how well we were training new teachers, we had to start collecting a massive amount of performance data on them and then analyze it to see how we were doing. Indeed, final course grades and overall GPA were going to be small factors in a program that now would require teaching candidates to reflect on their teaching behavior and assess themselves. Surveys and performance summaries would need to be collected at specific transition points in our program so that comparison studies might reveal how candidates were developing.

System versus Database

Our first contact with candidates occurs when they apply for admission. In the new program, more forms and data than ever were being collected, so we quickly designed an Access database to store it. Even so, the Office of Candidates Services, which handles admission, found themselves doing double duty by collecting and filing paper-based forms while at the same time having to update the database. And since budget cuts and a university hiring freeze meant nobody new could be brought in, we needed a system to automate parts of the admission process.

When we first started examining which technologies would, in fact, let us “do more with less,” the latest buzzword coming from Microsoft was .NET. A nice educational discount, plus the ability to upgrade our Access database to Microsoft’s enterprise database, SQL Server, led us to quickly adopt .NET as the backbone to our system. This would provide the security we would need if teacher candidates were going to be able to input their admission data directly. Then all we needed was to build an interface that would allow them to do so. With an eager technology staff leading the way, a new .NET Web portal soon went up that automated the admission process.

The key to any Web portal is access management. Once a login is validated, the user is assigned to a role, which varies the access options available to them. Our portal, the Candidate Account Manager (CAM), could “hit” our system database to determine if a user should be given the link to apply for admission, or, if the user had already applied, a link to check his or her admission status. Our new Web portal meant that not only did the admission forms disappear, the number of phone calls and other inquiries diminished as applicants could now check their status online.

Another great feature of the Web portal is that it allows applicants to request faculty recommendations electronically. Two are required to be on file. The previous process meant the form had to travel to the faculty member, be completed, returned via inter-office mail, and then manually entered by the Office of Candidate Services. Now it makes sense to send a request via e-mail with a link to a Web form that collects this information directly from the faculty member. The applicant initiates this request, and the status report will show what recommendations are received in the system.

Collecting Data at Specific Transitions

The Candidate Account Manager is a role-based Web portal. The various roles assigned are aligned perfectly with the program’s developmental benchmarks. As teacher candidates progress in the program, their role changes and so d'es the data that the CAM portal tries to collect.

In courses throughout our program, a candidate can be placed in local educational settings to gain the experiences necessary to develop as a teacher. Documenting the demographics of every classroom a candidate is placed in is virtually impossible by traditional means, but the CAM portal was designed to allow candidates themselves to input this data. Since every faculty advisor has a read-only interface to the system, field coordinators can verify previous placements and ensure that every candidate receives a range of experiences.

One of the key benefits we noticed was that our Web site was convenient for students regardless of their location. Transfer students could apply online. Teacher candidates could use the computers at any placement site to document their experiences.

The Next Phase

The next phase in the ongoing development of our CAM portal is to collect survey data from our program completers. The challenge will be including incentives in the CAM portal that will keep our alumni logging in. We have just graduated the first group that has used our portal since the inception of the program. The portal seems to be the perfect mechanism by which we can communicate information to our alumni. Unlike traditional Web pages, we can monitor which of our alumni are using the portal. We also hope to fill it with documentation for helping our beginning teachers pass the Praxis III examinations. As these results are made available to us we can create a complete data profile for determining the success of our programs.

The beginning of this era of standards-based, performance-based teacher education is an ideal time to collect some baseline data about what candidates know and are able to do today. The CAM portal is facilitating that data collection process. Moreover, conducting standards-based performance assessment will provide data for continued improvement of our programs and eventually to ensure the preparation of the teachers we want in today’s schools.

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