Those working on a project funded by the largest grant in Kansas University history are part of a larger national effort to change the way testing is done at elementary and secondary schools.
Neal Kingston, director of KU’s Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation, leads the $22 million project that was announced in October 2010.
To get to the new tests, KU researchers are working on what they call dynamic learning maps, which look like large, complicated flow charts that show how students get from knowing none of the skills they learn in school to knowing everything they know at graduation from high school.
These are, to say the least, large documents.
Putting together a complete picture
For an upcoming conference, Kingston said the group plans to print one of the learning maps in a font size that’s large enough to read. It will be 6 feet tall and about 30 feet long, he said.
“The way that a student learns syllables is different for a deaf student than it is for a student who is hearing,” Kingston said.
A hearing student often learns the concept of syllables by figuring out rhyming first, he said. But a deaf student usually will learn by figuring out various ways words are formed using tongue and mouth positions.
Kelli Thomas, an associate professor of math education, helped put together the math portion of the maps. She’s doing it by bringing together research on smaller bits of the whole puzzle. Someone may have researched how students learn, say, addition, but no one has yet put together a complete picture.
The maps show multiple pathways students can travel to learn one skill, a new feature of these designs.
The new tests will incorporate the learning maps, showing which skills a student has mastered and which ones they still need to work on.
“We can really be fine-grained in an area where students are struggling,” she said.
Eleven states initially signed up to participate in the project with KU, and two more have joined since then.
KU is focusing on students with significant cognitive disabilities — another group is working on tests for the general student population. So far, though, the work has been similar. Kingston referred to a line from a Frank and Ernest cartoon about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to illustrate the difficulty of making the tests accessible for students with significant disabilities.
“Sure he was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards…and in high heels.”
Funding the project
Ronda Consolver, assistant director for the project, said about 10 to 15 faculty are involved in some way, along with 14 graduate research assistants from various departments across the university and 36 full-time staff involved in some way with the project, though some have other duties as well. Many of the graduate students would not be able to attend school if their positions were not funded, he said.
In this case, the grant’s funding for these positions is temporary, Kingston said. The number of people involved in higher education can grow and shrink based on the grants received, analogous to a company receiving a contract.
He said he hoped that some states would contract with KU to administer the tests once the project was finished so that a source of funding for the work would continue.
“In universities, we’re used to it,” he said. “The money’s just as soft here.”