Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

See How IES is Supporting Technology-Delivered Assessments

For decades, student assessments have looked the same: multiple-choice or short-answer questions administered with pencil and paper, with all students receiving a common group of questions. Today, innovations in assessment design, greater understanding in the learning sciences, and new technology have all contributed to the way that assessments are administered and taken, and how the resulting information is shared with teachers, students, and families.

Since 2002, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has made more than 100 awards for the development of new assessments that are driven and delivered through technology.  The awards were made to a mix of academic researchers, entrepreneurial firms, and larger education research organizations. All of the projects included a rigorous research and development process, with studies to validate that assessments are measuring what is intended and pilots to test the promise of the technologies for improving student learning outcomes.

To highlight some of the technology-delivered assessments, IES has created YouTube Playlists that feature 57 videos in seven areas:

The assessments highlighted are delivered via mobile apps or through web-based computers and administered for different purposes. Some are diagnostic assessments used to screen students at the start of a new unit or year to identify areas where students struggle or areas to target with intervention. Many serve as performance assessments to determine how well students analyze information and draw conclusions when engaging in complex scenario-based activities. Others are summative assessments used to measure student performance during and at the end of the school year. Many also include a formative assessment component that adjusts based on the level of performance, and are designed to provide feedback and cues to students to inform the learning process.

A good number of the assessments are administered as simulations, games, scenarios, and puzzles, allowing for complex challenges where students can demonstrate mastery of knowledge and skills. Several enable new opportunities for assessment through the application of technological advances, such as natural language processing and machine-learning, read-aloud stories, fast-paced tasks that require students to respond, and speech recognition programs. Many save classroom time because the assessments are self-administered, and teachers benefit from the automatic grading as students go.  Most of the assessments also provide teachers information to guide practice through data dashboards or generated reports. Several of the assessments are already being used in school around the country.

Below are highlights from each of the playlists. It is important to note that none of assessments highlighted are wide enough in scope or configured to measure the full depth and breadth of State learning standards. Therefore, they are not sufficient to replace statewide summative assessments used for accountability and reporting purposes.  Collectively, however, the examples highlight the promise of technology-delivered assessments to improve and expand on existing approaches for measuring student learning and social and emotional skills, and for informing teacher instruction.  

Mathematics and Science

ASSISTments is web-based mathematics platform that assesses and then provides immediate feedback to students in grades 3-12, and generates teacher reports use to inform instruction. 

SimScientists is a simulation platform that formatively and summatively assesses science inquiry skills and knowledge aligned to middle school Next Generation Science Standards. 

Reading and Writing

RAPID is an adaptive literacy diagnostic and summative assessment system for students in Kindergarten through grade 12. 

Revision Assistant provides automated sentence-level in-line feedback to students during writing tasks aligned to Common Core State Standards. 

Social and Emotional Development

VESIP is a web-based simulated environment that measures the ability of students in grade 3-7 to interpret social cues which research demonstrates are needed to resolve conflicts. 

Early Learning

The School Readiness Curriculum Based Measurement System provides universal screening, benchmarking, and progress monitoring in language, literacy, mathematics, and science, for students in Pre-K and Kindergarten students. 

English Learning

ONPAR assesses the science and mathematics content knowledge and skills of English- and Spanish- speaking students using hyperlinks and animations to make questions accessible to all students. 

Tools for Teacher Practice

CLASS 5.0 automatically analyzes classroom discourse (student and teacher talking during class) and provides reliable profiles to guide and optimize how teachers lead instruction. 

Students With Disabilities or At Risk for Disabilities

NumberShire is a game-based mathematics intervention for students with, or at risk for, disabilities in Kindergarten through Grade 2. The game embeds instructional supports such as providing explicit, systematic, and frequent instruction, goal setting, and allowing students to work at their own pace. 

AnimalWatchVi Suite is an iPad app covering pre-algebra mathematics for middle and high school students with visual impairments. The app includes accommodation tools such as problem narration, audio hints, braille, and tactile graphics to provide accessible assessment. 

Written by Edward Metz, ED/IES SBIR program manager and IES Education Technology topic program officer.

NCSER Investigators Receive Awards from the CEC’s Division of Early Childhood

In October, the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division for Early Childhood (DEC) honored recipients of the DEC Awards at their Annual International Conference on Young Children with Special Needs and Their Families. These awards are conferred upon individuals who are making a difference in the lives of young children with disabilities and their families. A number of NCSER-funded Principal Investigators (PIs) were among those honored by the DEC.

Kathleen Hebbeler (left) was one of two recipients of the Mary McEvoy Service to the Field Award, which recognizes an individual who has made significant national or international contributions to the field of early childhood special education. Dr. Hebbeler, of SRI International, has served as the PI on two NCSER-funded awards. She explored participation in and characteristics of early intervention services that predict child outcomes in kindergarten using data from the National Early Intervention Longitudinal Study. She also examined the reliability and validity of the Child Outcomes Summary Form, a tool used by many states in reporting annual child progress for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) preschool programs.

Karin Lifter (center) was the recipient of the Merle B. Karnes Award for Service to the Division for Early Childhood. This award recognizes an individual who has made a significant contribution to DEC in areas of leadership, service, research, advocacy, or publications. With NCSER funding, Dr. Lifter, of Northeastern University, has been validating the Developmental Play Assessment, an instrument designed to generate a profile of a child’s skills in play for progress monitoring and instructional planning. 

Michaelene M. Ostrosky (right) was awarded the DEC Award for Mentoring, an honor that recognizes an individual who has provided significant guidance to the development of students and/or new practitioners in the field. This award highlights the importance of training and guiding the next generation of leaders in the field. Dr. Ostrosky, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, served as PI on a project to evaluate the efficacy of Special Friends, a class-wide kindergarten program designed to improve the social outcomes of children with disabilities. She is currently serving as co-PI on a project that is developing a class-wide motor skills intervention for preschool children with developmental disabilities, called CHildren in Action: Motor Program for PreschoolerS (CHAMPPS).

Written by Amy Sussman, program officer, NCSER and Wendy Wei, program assistant, NCSER/NCER

The Scoop on Replication Research in Special Education

Replication research may not grab the headlines, but reproducing findings from previous studies is critical for advancing scientific knowledge. Some have raised concerns about whether we conduct a sufficient number of replication studies. This concern has drawn increased attention from scholars in a variety of fields, including special education.

Photo array, top left going clockwise: Therrien, Lemons, Cook, and Coyne

Several special education researchers explored this issue in a recent Special Series on Replication Research in Special Education in the journal, Remedial and Special Education. The articles describe replication concepts and issues, systematically review the state of replication research in special education, and provide recommendations for the field. One finding is that there may be more replication studies than it seems—but authors don’t call them replications.

Contributors to the special issue include Bryan Cook from the University of Hawaii, Michael Coyne from the University of Connecticut, and Bill Therrien from the University of Virginia, who served as guest editors, and Chris Lemons, from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. They shared more about the special issue and their collective insights into replications in special education research.

(In photo array, top left going clockwise: Therrien, Lemons, Coyne, and Cook)

How did you become interested in replication work?

Replication is a core component of the scientific method. Despite this basic fact that we all learned in Research 101, it is pretty apparent that in practice, replication is often ignored. We noticed how much attention the lack of replication was starting to get in other fields and in the press and were particularly alarmed by recent work showing that replications often fail to reproduce original findings. This made us curious about the state and nature of replication in the field of special education.

What is the state of replication research in special education?

It depends on how you define replication and how you search for replication articles. When a narrow definition is used and you require the term “replication” to be in the article, the rate of replication doesn’t look too good. Using this method, Lemons et al. (2016) and Makel et al. (2016) reported that the rate of replication in special education is between 0.4 to 0.5%, meaning that out of all the articles published in our field, less than 1% are replications. We suspected that—for a number of reasons (e.g., perceptions that replications are difficult to publish, are less prestigious than novel studies, and are hostile attempts to disprove a colleague’s work)—researchers might be conducting replication studies but not referring to them as such. And, indeed it’s a different story when you use a broad definition and you do not require the term replication to be in the article. Cook et al. (2016) found that out of 83 intervention studies published in six non-categorical special education journals from 2013-2014, there were 26 (31%) that could be considered replications, though few authors described their studies that way. Therrien et al. (2016) selected eight intervention studies from 1999-2001 and determined whether subsequently published studies that cited the original investigations had replicated them. They found that six of the eight original studies had been replicated by a total of 39 different studies (though few of the replications identified themselves as such).

What were some other key findings across the review articles?

Additional findings indicated that: (a) most replications conducted in special education are conceptual (i.e., some aspects are the same as the original study, but some are different) as opposed to direct (i.e., as similar to the original study as possible), (b) the findings of the majority of replications in special education agreed with the findings of the original studies, and (c) most replications in the field are conducted by one or more authors involved in the original studies. In three of the four reviews, we found it was more likely for a replication to produce the same outcome if there was author overlap between the original and replication studies. This may be due to the challenges of replicating a study with the somewhat limited information provided in a manuscript. It also emphasizes the importance of having more than one research team independently replicate study findings.  

What are your recommendations for the field around replicating special education interventions?

The article by Coyne et al. (2016) describes initial recommendations for how to conceptualize and carry out replication research in a way that contributes to the evidence about effective practices for students with disabilities and the conditions under which they are more or less effective:

  • Many studies evaluate an approach that has previously been studied under different conditions. In this case, researchers should specify which aspects replicate previous research;
  • Conceptualize and report intervention research within a framework of systematic replications, or a continuum of conceptual replications ranging from those that are more closely aligned to the original study to those that are less aligned;
  • Design and conduct closely aligned replications that duplicate, as faithfully as possible, the features of previous studies.
  • Design and conduct less closely aligned replications that intentionally vary essential components of earlier studies (e.g., participants, setting, intervention features, outcome measures, and analyses); and
  • Interpret findings using a variety of methods, including statistical significance, directions of effects, and effect sizes. We also encourage the use of meta-analytic aggregation of effects across studies.

One example of a high-quality replication study is by Doabler et al. The authors conducted a closely aligned replication study of a Tier 2 kindergarten math intervention. In the design of their IES-funded project, the authors planned a priori to conduct a replication study that would vary on several dimensions, including geographical location, participant characteristics, and instructional context. We believe this is a nice model of designing, conducting, and reporting a replication study.

Ultimately, we need to conduct more replication studies, we need to call them replications, we need to better describe how they are alike and different from the original study, and we need to strive for replication by researchers not involved in the original study. It is this type of work that may increase the impact research has on practice, because it strengthens our understanding of whether, when, and where an intervention works.

By Katie Taylor, Program Officer, National Center for Special Education Research

Trading the Number 2 Pencil for 2.0 Technology

Although traditional pencil and paper tests provide good information for many purposes, technology presents the opportunity to assess students on tasks that better elicit the real world skills called for by college and career standards. IES supports a number of researchers and developers who are using technology to develop better assessments through grants as well as the Small Business Innovation Research program. 

A screenshot of the GISA assessment intro page One example of the power of technology to support innovative assessment  is the Global, Integrated, Scenario-based Assessment (known as ‘GISA’), developed by John Sabatini and Tenaha O’Reilly at the Educational Testing Service as part of a grant supported by the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative.

Each GISA scenario is structured to resemble a timely, real-world situation. For example, one scenario begins by explaining that the class has been asked to create a website on green schools. The student is assigned the task of working with several students (represented by computer avatars) to create the website. In working through the scenario, the student engages in activities that are scaffolded to support students in summarizing information, completing a graphic organizer, and collaborating to evaluate whether statements are facts or opinions. The scenario provides a measure of each student’s ability to learn from text through assessing his or her knowledge of green schools before and after completing the scenario. This scenario is available on the ETS website along with more information about the principles on which GISA was built.

Karen Douglas, of the National Center for Education Research, recently spoke to Dr. Sabatini and Dr. O’Reilly on the role of technology in creating GISA, what users think of it, and their plans for continuing to develop technology-based assessments.

How did the use of technology contribute to the design of GISA?

Technological delivery creates many opportunities over more traditional paper and pencil test designs. On the efficiency side of the argument, items and tasks can be delivered over the internet in a standardized way and there are obvious advantages for automated scoring. However, the real advantage has to do with both the control over test environment and what can be assessed. We can more effectively simulate the digital environments that students use in school, leisure and, later, in the workforce. GISA uses scenario-based assessment to deliver items and tasks. During a scenario-based assessment students are given a plausible reason for reading a collection of thematically related materials. The purpose defines what is important to focus on as students work towards a larger goal. The materials are diverse and may reflect different perspectives and quality of information. 

Screenshot of a GISA forum on Green Schools

The student not only needs to understand these materials but also needs to evaluate and integrate them as they solve problems, make decisions, or apply what they learn to new situations. This design is not only more like the activities that occur in school, but also affords the opportunity for engaging students in deeper thinking. GISA also includes simulated students that may support or scaffold the test taker's understanding with good habits of mind such as the use of reading strategies. Items are sequenced to build up test takers’ understanding and to examine what parts of a more complex task students can or cannot do. In this way, the assessment serves as a model for learning while simultaneously assessing reading. Traditionally, the areas of instruction and assessment have not been integrated in a seamless manner.

What evidence do you have that GISA provides useful information about reading skills?

We have a lot more research to conduct, but thus far we have been able to create a new technology- delivered assessment that updates the aspects of reading that are measured and introduces a variety of new features.

Despite the novel interface, items, tasks, and format, students are able to understand what is expected of them. Our analyses indicate the test properties are good and that students can do a range of tasks that were previously untested in traditional assessments. While students may be developing their skills on more complex tasks, there is evidence they can do many of the components that feed into it. In this way the assessment may be more instructionally relevant.

Informally, we have received positive feedback on GISA from both teachers and students. Teachers view the assessment as better matching the types of activities they teach in the classroom, while students seem to enjoy the more realistic purpose for reading, the more relevant materials, and the use of simulated peers. 

What role do you think technology will play in future efforts to create better assessments?

We believe technology will play a greater role in how assessments are designed and delivered. Being able to provide feedback to students and better match the test to student needs are some areas where future assessments will drive innovation. More interactive formats, such as intelligent tutoring and gaming, will also grow over time. With new forms of technology available, the possibilities for meeting students’ educational needs increases dramatically.

What’s next for GISA?

We are using GISA in two additional grants. In one grant, we leverage the GISA designs for use with adults, a group for which there are few viable assessments. In the other grant we are using GISA to get a better understanding of how background knowledge affects reading comprehension.

For more information about the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative, read this post on the IES blog.

By Karen Douglas, Education Research Analyst, NCER, who oversees the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative

Sharing the Power of Intensive Interventions for Students with Learning Disabilities

In 2013, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) launched the Accelerating the Academic Achievement of Students with Learning Disabilities Research Initiative (A3). The goal was to develop and evaluate intensive interventions—such as curricula, instructional approaches and technology—that could improve the academic achievement of students with or at risk of a disability.

A five-year grant in this initiative went to Dr. Douglas Fuchs and Dr. Lynn Fuchs (pictured), of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, who for the past three years have been developing and piloting intensive interventions focused on improving students’ reading comprehension of informational texts and fraction and pre-algebra performance.

Earlier this month, the Fuchs joined Dr. Lou Danielson and Dr. Rebecca Zumeta Edmonds from the National Center on Intensive Interventions (NCII) for a webinar: “Intensive Intervention: What is it, Who it’s For, and Why it’s Important?” (NCII is a research initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.)

The NCII/A3 webinar was purposely held in October—which is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month—to raise awareness of research and resources to support students with learning disabilities. The session was recorded and is available through the NCII website or you can watch it below.

The panelists discussed the intensive intervention process, methods of identifying students not making adequate academic progress, and recent related research. Specifically, the Fuchs’ shared their research designing and piloting two innovative components that seek to expand responsiveness to intervention:

  • Capitalizing on the power of prior knowledge to build informational text comprehension; and
  • Capitalizing on the power of executive function to build fractions knowledge

As part of this NCSER A3 Initiative, these and other intervention components are being developed, integrated into comprehensive intervention programs, and rigorously tested. Please visit the project website to learn more and keep up to date with the latest findings from this research. Viewers of the recorded webinar can also learn more about implementation support resources available through NCII.

In the final years of their five-year NCSER grant, Doug and Lynn Fuchs will work to understand the efficacy of intensive interventions for improving outcomes for students with learning disabilities.  

Written by Sarah Brasiel, Program Officer, NCSER

Photo by Wolf Hoffmann,courtesy of Vanderbilt University