Education professor develops progress-monitoring software

By Jessica Buterbaugh
August 22, 2016

If there is a common complaint among teachers, it is that there is not enough time in the day to complete all the duties with which they are tasked. From lesson plans to assessments to grading and student reports, the day is gone, and for most teachers, so are their evenings. A new software suite out of Penn State’s Learning, Design and Technology program is addressing those time constraints, while also improving the literacy of young students.

Named avenue pm for its audio-visual environment and progress monitoring capabilities, the suite helps teachers track the literacy development of school-aged children, specifically for students who are deaf and hard of hearing. It consists of four different assessments that measure reading and writing aptitude, and is available for free for all educators and school districts.

“If you look at current progress monitoring of regular, mainstream classrooms, the vast majority of these assessments are being done with a paper and pencil,” said Simon Hooper, professor of learning, design and technology and avenue pm project director. “We wanted to see what would happen if we computerized these assessments, delivered them over the computer, gathered the data, and presented the data back to teachers in charts instead of having the teachers scoring all of the assessments themselves and then physically putting data into a grade book where, often, the data just sits.”

The suite, which has shown to reduce teachers’ grading time by about 50 percent, has four assessments — SLASH, MAZE, Kid Speak and WordMark — that are delivered in the form of a computerized game.

“When we’re using technology, there are things we can do that you don’t necessarily normally do,” Hooper said about converting the assessments into games. “These assessments become fun and so much fun, in fact, that kids want to keep taking them over and over again. So, in the end, they become practice environments.”

Three of the assessments — SLASH, MAZE and KidSpeak — measure reading fluency and comprehension. SLASH and MAZE provide students with passages where they must decide where word breaks in sentences should occur and also fill in sentence blanks with the appropriate words. Students’ accuracy determines whether they move up or go down a level. As students move up a level, the assessments become more complex. KidSpeak focuses on oral reading ability and requires students to read a passage out loud using a recording device.

WordMark is a timed, authentic writing task that measures writing skills. It presents a randomly selected story starter and students must complete the writing tasks within three minutes.

Assessments are scored either automatically or by a user interface. SLASH and MAZE are scored immediately after a student completes the assessment; KidSpeak and WordMark require the teacher to grade the assessments themselves. All grading is completed online and, once submitted, the data is recorded in avenue pm’s database and aggregated.

“We designed a visualization system that charts the data of each assessment and allows the teacher to track a student’s performance on each assessment over time,” Hooper said, explaining that the visualization of data was an important component when creating the suite. “We wanted to help teachers better identify any learning difficulties and help in the process of applying strategies or changing instructional methods for struggling students.”

Funded by a nearly $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, avenue pm is the second suite created by Hooper that addresses the needs of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. The first, named avenue ASL, was used to evaluate college students who were learning American Sign Language. For both projects, he solicited the help of Susan Rose, deaf-education specialist and professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota.

“For students who are deaf or hard of hearing, the average reading achievement levels at high school graduation are at approximately the fourth-grade level,” Hooper said, adding that approximately 6 million children in the U.S. suffer from hearing loss. “Current progress monitoring tools are not focused on this population, and the idea with avenue pm was that we needed assessments that would be good predictors of their performance.”

Although avenue pm was developed to monitor the literacy progress of students who are deaf or hard of hearing, the suite can be used in both special- and regular-education classrooms. KidSpeak was developed after the researchers, which also include Rayne Sperling, associate professor of educational psychology at Penn State, received feedback from teachers requesting a program that would measure oral reading fluency.

“We’ve had quite a lot of teachers who adopted KidSpeak and are using it for kids in special education who have reading problems,” Hooper said. “Then we also have some in regular education classrooms who are just using it with their kids to be able to monitor their reading progress.”

Currently, avenue pm has 500 teachers and 1,000 students from 49 states as registered users, with the majority of participants belonging to special education classrooms. Data from approximately 200,000 assessments has been collected and is currently being evaluated.

“We want to make sure the system really measures what it is that we think it is measuring,” he said. “So what we do is correlate the scores we get on the system with other literacy assessment scores, and we’re getting some pretty good numbers.”

Hooper and his colleagues also are planning for the future and helping other underrepresented populations. They have already started to expand the use of avenue pm to adult English language learners in China and have seen initial success.

“In general, I love the idea of progress monitoring,” he said. “The idea that you can have a really brief assessment that you do regularly and it’s telling you how you’re doing, how things are going, and if you’re improving.”

Last Updated February 11, 2020