OAKLAND — Teachers and administrators at Regional School Unit 18 facilities are testing a new method to evaluate their first graders’ reading skills: having them talk into iPads.

An app, developed by the educational nonprofit NWEA, will guide students to read aloud a 50-word picture book and answer questions about its content, which fluctuate in difficulty based on how well the student is faring. The district currently uses similar adaptive NWEA examinations to assess its 2-12th graders on reading and math.

RSU 18 serves China, Belgrade, Oakland and Sidney.

Testing has gone on this week and will continue into next week. Another round of iPad-based assessments is slated to take place in the spring, with a potential mid-year evaluation in December.

The test replaces DIBELS pen-to-paper exams for the first grade classes. Assistant Superintendent Keith Morin hopes the adoption of a digital approach will lead to more consistent testing and reduce the amount of learning time that students lose. With the new NWEA program, all students can be tested simultaneously, instead of being removed from classes individually for half-hour chunks. He said that the headset microphones each first grader speaks into do not pick up background noise or the voice of neighboring peers.

Morin reported at a school board meeting on Wednesday that he has gotten positive feedback from teachers so far. Although the adaptive iPad program was released nationally in February and is in its pilot year at RSU 18 schools, Morin said that he has faith in its long-term success.

“NWEA has been a trusted assessment tool, even from the Maine Department of Education’s perspective,” he said. “We’ve used their assessments so often, and they’ve proven to be reliable.”

While the new app examines similar skills as the paper test did, including accuracy, fluency and reading comprehension, teachers will benefit from having more detailed and instantaneous results that can help identify where individual students, as well as an entire class, needs improvement. The NWEA test uses EduSpeak speech recognition and scoring technology, which recognizes speech patterns — skips, substitutions, pauses — unique to children aged four to eight.

“One of the cool things is that when the students read the passage, it actually records their reading and their voice and their answers so that teachers can actually go back into the system and listen themselves,” Morin added. Teachers can then review speech patterns or areas a student struggled with, if necessary.

The metrics will also help give second grade teachers a fuller picture of how to structure their curricula to address student needs specific to each class year.

“I’m really excited to see what’s next — what types of reports we’re going to get and how that’s going to benefit future grades,” Morin added.

Morin stated that the district could not stay on the cutting edge of educational practices without the community’s support.

“I think this is a great use of technology,” he noted. “We’ve been very fortunate to have the community invest in technology in the schools, to have the iPads and the apps that go along with them. I think it’s paramount to where we’re at.”

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins


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