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Portable Computing in Assessing Mathematics Learning

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Herbert Ginsburg

Herbert Ginsburg

A two-year grant from National Science Foundation has provided the first in a suite of tools designed to help teachers assess the way elementary students learn mathematics. Professor Herbert Ginsburg, a leading interpreter of children's understanding of mathematics; the Education Development Center, a prestigious educational research and evaluation institute; and Wireless Generation, the groundbreaking developer of handheld computing devices that can be used in the classroom, will work together on the project.

Ginsburg, the Jacob H. Schiff Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, will serve as the expert in mathematics learning on the project. "This project will result in substantial new knowledge about how to create and subsequently support the use of assessment tools in classroom contexts," he said.

There is strong consensus in the cognitive and mathematics research communities that assessment should help teachers to understand children's thinking to allow them to improve instruction. Yet there has been little work on developing teacher-friendly assessment tools for mathematics.

"The K-12 education world has a new and urgent focus: getting meaningful, ongoing assessment data from the classroom. Without such data teachers cannot target instruction effectively, administrators cannot manage toward continuous improvement, and policy makers cannot evaluate the $400 billion they spend each year on K-12 education," he added.

"Existing assessments are inadequate. Annual multiple-choice tests are currently the primary source of assessment data, but these tests are often administered at the close of the school year, provide minimal information about student thinking and learning, and often result in teaching being replaced by test-prep drilling."

As a complement to testing, schools are increasingly looking for ways to perform reliable and valid classroom assessments-that is, assessments that turn the teacher's daily observations of student learning into rigorous data and that are based on daily instruction.

Such classroom assessments, Ginsburg said, "have the potential to generate data in real time, embed assessment in authentic learning activities (e.g., assessing a student in the act of solving a math problem), and provide insights into student thinking and learning that help teachers tailor instruction to individuals."

Prior to this, the EDC Center for Children and Technology and a new technology company, Wireless Generation, explored ways that handheld and portable computing devices can support teachers to conduct ongoing assessment of reading in classroom settings. Preliminary research shows that handheld devices can make it easier for individual teachers to conduct observational assessments, and can support teachers in using the data from observations to inform instructional practice.

The partners see handheld technologies playing a critical role in addressing the challenges of assessment. They believe that the single most powerful aspect of these devices is their ability to help teachers use assessment information to understand how students think and learn, and to use that understanding to determine how to work with and design instructional strategies to meet the needs of individual students.

Because the technology alleviates the burden of recording and tabulating information by hand, it not only saves teachers time, but potentially frees them to analyze what the data mean for both their students and their practice.

"Further, the ability to collect and view information about student performance easily at any time provides a kind of process recording that can be shared with other teachers and instructional specialists and can form the basis for far more concretely informed conversations between teachers and their colleagues. Pilot work with teachers suggests that the group's initial hypothesis is solid. Not only did the teachers find the reading assessment software easy to use, but also the data sets were used as the basis for reflection and conversation about individual students' needs," said Ginsburg.previous page