As students log into a computer website, an orange creature named Plory — who resembles somewhat a Sesame Street monster wandering into the South Park animated world — greets the children.
Through a digital tutorial, Plory explains both how the mechanics of a series of online assessments will work and what students should expect from the tests themselves.
The character introduces students to i-Ready, educational software now in use in nearly every school district in Florida.
This isn’t about getting 100 percent, the cartoon beast explains.
“Based on how you do, your teacher will know exactly what you’ve learned and what you still need to learn,” Plory says. “Then you can work on lessons that are just right for you.”
In explaining the system to adults, Rob Selvaggi, regional vice president for Curriculum Associates, doesn’t use a high, silly voice, but he tries to exhibit the same level of patience.
This program seeks to do more than just test what students already know. But that’s a concept that can initially be challenging for parents and educators unfamiliar with the program to understand.
“When I went to school, we didn’t take adaptive tests,” Selvaggi said. “The goal was to get all the questions right. Now every child will only get half right and get half wrong.”
It can be confounding to high-performing students — or parents — who seek perfection, but these digital tests are designed on a matrix that seeks to find what they do not know as surely as what they do.
But that’s just one of the challenges Selvaggi faces in explaining this software to educators and families who have their own ideas about how classroom learning ought to take place.
It’s imperative though for students, facing more rigorous learning standards than ever as they prepare to enter a global workforce start, to have more rigorous, personalized programs that support 21st century learning.
— Pushing back on pushback —
With evolving educational standards and digital natives filling the seats in Florida classrooms, the ways students learn and get assessed changes in dizzying ways. It sometimes leaves parents more disoriented and confused than they feel trying to help a child do Common Core math homework.
Developers of i-Ready deal with a share of skepticism from parents angry about student screen time. The program, which prepares students to excel at demanding sets of academic standards put in place by the Florida Legislature, inspires the same type of pushback as the high-stakes testing environment it seeks to ease.
In a September feature in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Manatee County education activist Bridget Mendel called i-Ready “crap” and criticized the digital tool for encouraging educators to plop kids in front of a screen instead of keeping their attention in class.
A parent group in Volusia County raised concerns about i-Ready contributing to over-testing of students, with one parent commenting, “Call me crazy, but I trust my teachers to know if my child is where they need to be. We didn’t need another ‘program’ which essentially ups the testing volume again for students.”
Public education advocate Thomas Ultican wrote on his blog that i-Ready “drains money from classrooms, applies federally supported failed learning theories and undermines good teaching.” Worst of all? “Children hate it.”
Not everyone, it seems, finds Plory that cute.
— Empowering educators —
But Curriculum Associates, the industry leaders behind the diagnostic software being introduced in classrooms across Florida, promises the digital i-Ready tools will better equip teachers and pupils.
Most importantly, i-Ready helps students digest and explore those subjects they need to learn the most about to succeed in modern education and future careers.
“This gives teachers unprecedented information about those children,” says Selvaggi.
The assessment software seeks not so much to grade children’s efficiency as to discover each student’s individual proficiencies. That’s valuable information to educators dealing with a variety of skill and insight levels within any given class.
But Selvaggi also stresses his goal isn’t to replace educators with instructional lessons. i-Ready works precisely by empowering teachers to steer students in the best academic direction.
Sarasota County school district officials recently released a video showing how children go first to test on i-Ready software, then spend time with teachers and assistants better equipped than ever before to tackle specific subject areas where students exhibit the greatest need.
“You will see a teacher working with a child, and actually working on skills they are struggling with because they were able to pull those lessons the day before,” says Laura Kingsley, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer for the Sarasota County Schools.
And at least at the administrative level, education leaders largely bought into the promise of i-Ready throughout the state. The programs already see use in 57 Florida school districts and counting.
Curriculum Associates says the proof is in the test scores, too. Since employing i-Ready in curricula, 545 Florida schools in the 2016-17 school year increased school grades. In the 2017-18 school year, 953 schools either increased their grades or maintained an “A” rating. That’s success in 29 percent of Florida schools directly tied to i-Ready.
The company attributes these strong results to the fact that the program is in the hands of empowered educators made more effective by the data and support provided by the i-Ready tool. Selvaggi feels especially proud of that success given the fact that districts in many cases work with fewer resources than ever, and his team is always careful to position the program as a classroom supplement and not a replacement for a good teacher.
— Tools for Teachers —
Curriculum Associates as a company has existed for 50 years, predating Common Core standards, computer-assisted learning, and the many kinds of digital automation making professionals concerned for the future of education. Through the history of the company, its mission has remained the same: to make classrooms better places for students and teachers.
The company, originally founded by a group of educators, started out printing K-12 educational tools like Quick-Word and Brigance, then dove into test preparation in 1989 with Test Ready Mathematics. The company began focusing on Common Core before the term was widely used in public discourse, creating products from scratch like Ready Reading and Ready Mathematics to align with new standards and empower teachers to help students handle rigorous testing.
And when the company in 2011 looked to bring the products to the digital age, they spent considerable time and resources working with educators to develop the online diagnostic and instruction tool i-Ready. Designed to pinpoint student needs and deliver personalized instruction to support teacher-led learning, this blended solution evolved the ways in which Curriculum Associates was able to support students and educators.
Also interesting to note, Curriculum Associates operates as a deeply philanthropic company. In 2016, when choosing a best-fit partner to support the company’s mission and help them grow their impact, they carefully vetted investors before choosing Berkshire Partners, a local, long-term focused firm. The sale of majority shares resulted in a historic $200 million donation to charity, including record donations to the Iowa State University Foundation and the Boston Foundation.
This background is relevant in that it underscores the company’s commitment to partnering with districts to make teachers more effective – as opposed to less relevant – than ever with support from digital education tools. The company does not seek to bleed public school districts dry selling overpriced tech. Rather, it offers i-Ready as a tool for teachers to make the promise of differentiated instruction a practical reality.
Plory and friends should make children excited to learn, comfortable being assessed and eager to absorb the information irreplaceable flesh-and-blood teachers will continue to provide within classrooms.
And to ensure that happens, Curriculum Associated provides rich professional development for educators as well, so all parties understand how its products work in partnership with the professionals responsible for informing this generation of pupils.
— Measured use —
The notion that software and digital tools inherently present too much screen time for students makes Selvaggi cringe. As it has for 50 years, Curriculum Associates remains first a publisher of educational material. Their programs should no more replace educators than textbooks do.
“i-Ready is an online mechanism,” he said. “There are components to it that are broken out by teachers.”
Basically, a child takes the diagnostic test, then a teacher gets the master data reports and puts the child on an appropriate learning track from there. The adaptive testing provides information on student knowledge for teachers, but it still takes the intervention of an educator to ensure a child learns that which they don’t already know.
There’s also plenty of data out there to show the shifting needs of modern-day students. Mark Pritchett, executive director of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, has worked with national and local philanthropists to help establish TechActive classrooms in portions of Florida in an effort to introduce better technology to the classroom.
The Foundation’s work is not just about funding new toys for teachers and students but about restructuring the classrooms of tomorrow. In many a class space, rows of chairs disappear in favor of clustered desks where students lead themselves through lessons and activities while a teacher tracks their achievements from a central computer in front of the room.
The i-Ready program bridges the gap between student- and teacher-led instruction in numerous ways. “The sole intention of using it is to drive instruction,” Selvaggi stresses. “We don’t want kids testing all the time.”
The team stresses this to school districts in promoting the software. While some schools feel tempted to set up lab environments where children can test all day, Curriculum Associates believes putting a child in front of the computer for more than 45 minutes per subject per week ultimately proves counter-productive.
“That’s the sweet spot,” he says. “45 minutes per subject per week.” That’s just costing 17 minutes of a six-hour learning day, he notes.
Children grow sick of Plory that way, and the whole point of i-Ready is to engage kids and empower teachers. The company proactively works with school and district-level officials to strike a solid balance on time spent on i-Ready compared to traditional classroom engagement.
Selvaggi hopes the utilization of programs like i-Ready will help reduce some of the redundant testing that in recent years came to dominate public education. One way the company has done this is by aligning i-Ready tools with Florida State Standards. The program enables the assessment of students on a regular basis, meaning educators can address areas of need and prepare students optimally for year-end standardized tests.
Miami-Dade County, a couple of years ago, cut 24 tests out of its schedule directly as a result of incorporating i-Ready into the curriculum.
“We have a mantra in the company of ‘Assess Less and Know More,’” he says. “We don’t want kids testing all the time.”