Results in the Palms of Their Hands: Using Handheld Computers to Support Data-Driven Decision Making

April 1, 2006

Since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act passed in 2001, the idea of using data has become pervasive within school systems. While educational leaders around the nation are pushing for multiple stakeholders to utilize standardized assessment data when making decisions on multiple levels of the educational system, the task of actually providing teachers with student-level data, which they can use within the context of instruction, has nonetheless remained a challenge. Difficulties arise in the states' and districts' ability to provide data, which meet a series of requirements.

According to research, for teachers to be able to use data within their practice, the data must have the following qualities: 1) be specific enough for teachers to see where students need help; 2) be accessible in a timely manner so that teachers are able to act upon the information; and, 3) be comprehensible enough to be translated into practice. All too often, the current approaches to assessment, as well as the data collected and distributed, do not meet these criteria (Popham, 1999; Schmoker, 2000). While teachers have long used a range of teacher-made and commercially published assessments, traditionally they have not used the results from the kind of standardized assessments, which they are now expected to use in instructional decision-making to make classroom-based decisions (Thorn, 2002), thus making it difficult to understand and consequently use these types of data. Moreover, there is typically a six-month lag time between when a standardized assessment is administered and when teachers receive the results, making the data, as many refer to them, "DOA" or "dead on arrival." Supplying teachers with data that are relevant, aligned to instructional goals, immediate, and easy-to-read is therefore no easy task.

Wanting to provide teachers with data that meet these criteria, educational leaders have been turning to technology-based solutions for help in meeting these goals. One such solution that is gaining in popularity around the country is the handheld computer technology and corresponding mCLASS (for Mobile Classroom Assessment) platform offered by the commercial company, Wireless Generation™. With software that provides teachers the option to choose from an array of standardized early literacy assessments, as well as easy-to-read graphics of students' results all accessible on handheld devices and desktop computers, Wireless Generation™ aims to make student-level data available to teachers so that they ultimately can use the data when making decisions about their students and their instructional practice.

In this paper, we will share information, based on data collected from two studies conducted by the Education Development Center's Center for Children and Technology (EDC/CCT) about how educators are implementing the Wireless tools; how teachers are actually using the tools to assist struggling students and shift their instructional practice; how facets of the technology assist in supporting data-driven decision making within the context of teaching and learning; the challenges associated with implementing the technology and using the data; and, finally, ideas about next steps and further research.


Cricket Heinze