Thursday, March 10, 2011

Spring Break Rx: Find Your Student's MCA 'Learning Locator'

Minnesota public school parents interested in helping support their child's standardized test performance in math need to  think 'spring' a bit earlier this year, given the earlier opening of the testing window for the new online MCA III mathematics examination.

The state's education department is allowing districts to offer their math exams anywhere between 3/28 and 5/20-- two to three weeks earlier than normal--  for the 2010-11 school year.  Depending on their given district's individual timing decision, families may want to work on weaknesses identified in the previous administration of the exam, which Minnesota's Department of Education simplified by issuing  a "learning locator" number for each student taking the math and reading exams in 2009-10.

"Learning locators" are contained on the paper copy of the previous year's exam, and some school districts have placed them in their electronically accessible student data systems (District 621 among them). The number can then be entered on the linked Department of Education page to generate practice exercises in areas a student needs to strengthen:

'Learning Locator' MCA Practice in Math & Reading 

In addition to the earlier administration window of the MCA III math, it is also a brand new version of the exam believed to be more rigorous in terms of the algebra required at the 7th and 8th grade levels.

As the test instrument used to compute Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments are the assessment tool of choice for staying in compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The testing window for administering the paper and pencil reading MCA II exam is April 11- 29 this year.  (Scheduled rollout of the online version of the MCA III reading exam is Spring of 2013).

MCA Tests Administered in 2010-11 School Year

           MCA III
                MCA II
           MCA II
               MCA II
       5th & 8th 
              (Note 1)
            (Note 1)

Note 1:  Minnesota students also take an MCA Science exam in the year they have a Life Science course.

Note 2:  The 10th and 11th grade reading and math exams are also graduation-standard exams each student must pass to receive a diploma.  It is possible to pass the MCA exam without passing the GRAD portion of the exam, and vice versa.  The new MCA III for 11th grade math is scheduled to be out in Spring 2014.

Note 3:  The MCA IIIs for science will be out in Spring 2012.  The 2011 test window for the Science MCA IIs is the same as math (March 28th  to May 20th).

Note 4: A majority of MN public school students take a series of NWEA (MAP) tests from grades 3 to 8, as well as a series known as the EXPLORE, PLAN, and ACT exams in the 8th, 10th, and 11th grades.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Will "Sophia" Be a Game Changer for Educators?

Sophia uses instructor-recommended lessons at home-- & more effective community learning in class.
It's a win-win-win, for students, teachers, and parents alike.

Learning lovers, take note!  Today is "public rollout" day for Sophia, a brand-new online social teaching platform.

Judging from the reaction of educators at a January Minnesota Public Radio Forum in St. Paul, "Sophia"-- which is Greek for wisdom--  could be the perfect support structure for unleashing student learning in ways impossible just a few years ago. Sophia, at its core, harnesses Facebook, You Tube, and Twitter by having people voluntarily share what they know through the creation of "learning packets" for others to benefit from.

Given the connective power recently supplied by those very same platforms in the democratic renewals going on the Middle East, Sophia's being a 'game changer'  is a possibility to take seriously.


Primarily by allowing educators to "flip" the relationship between work done in class and at home.

Fred Hennen, a middle school math teacher at Benilde-St. Margaret's in St. Louis Park, uses Sophia to do just that.  Employing an instructional approach he calls "backwards math," Hennen requests his students review video lectures at home, expecting them to come to class with the base knowledge gained.  Once at school, students have engaging community experiences around the material to be learned.

Says Hennen on the approach that also allows teachers to build better relationships with class members: "Students are getting the concepts behind the math (not just looking for the quickest route to answers); they are asking better questions;  they aren't afraid to ask for help when they get stuck; and they're enjoying math while working harder on it."

Hennen's success validates this assurance from Sophia Founder & CEO Don Smithmier: "We're not trying to replace the traditional courseroom in any way.  We're trying to augment the traditional classroom with some of the social media capabilities that could make that traditional classroom experience even better."

More instructional freedom sounds encouraging, but does the academic world really need another technological tool?  There are more new "things" than education can handle right now goes one rebuttal to the case for Sophia.

CEO Smithmier:  "Whether Sophia exists or not, we already have the same problem.  We've done the research , and there are over 3 million searches per month (on academic subjects) by students using the University of Google," he continued.  "Sophia is simply trying to get ahead of that by putting a fence around the Internet for an academic site only."

Sophia then takes additional steps to organize, sort, tag, & filter, before letting students evaluate and self-identified experts analyze-- to provide additional "seals of approval."

Sophia is totally FREE to any educator, student or person, and it also won't feature any commercial ad within the platform itself.  (Smithmier did add the site will feature soft "Made Possible By" messaging of corporate and foundation sponsors-- similar to that aired on public radio.)

The commercial side of Sophia will enter in when an entire institution or school district decides to take "administrative control, create private licenses, create firewall privacy, and customize what they are doing," according to Smithmier.

Still a Sophia skeptic?

Many traditional educators were on hand for the forum, which can be replayed in it's entirety here: UBS Forum on "Sophia"

Here is some of what they said:

"Sophia challenges teachers to think about how they are presenting by turning the concept that we're always teaching in the same direction on it's head."--- Mark Garrison, Instructional Technology Coordinator, White Bear Lake.

"It's a great resource for people to be more self-directed, responsible, and capable throughout life."-- David Ally, Director of Cyber Village Charter School.

"Sophia" meets kids where they are at, as it's simply not going to work to sit in front of the room and talk for 20 minutes."   The tool is "geared to to providing manageable bits of information kids can access quickly" .... "The internet is a huge world for students and Sophia really tries to narrow that to one source that's important."--- Rebecca Oberg, 10th grade Digital Media English Teacher at Roosevelt High School.

"We don't need 10,000 teachers in this country teaching each concept their own way every day.  (Sophia) shows content can be alive and provided in video and other engaging ways."-- Superintendent of West St. Paul Schools.

"Sophia helps alleviate a conundrum in education (by permitting students to learn lessons at different speeds).  The problem then becomes what you do with the five fast kids for organizing instruction.  It's an exciting set of questions to have to wrestle with."--- Assistant Superintendent from Burnsville district. 

"I have a reservation when anyone thinks they've got the new perfect "thing" in education.  What I like about Sophia is the attempt to blend many of the different tools and platforms together, to effectively provide it all."-- Keith Lester, Superintendent Brooklyn Center.

"The answer to education is NOT technology, it's people.   By enabling innovation, it allows more people to get involved and engaged."-- Don Smithmier, Sophia Founder & CEO.

Check out Sophia.  Here is an Official Press Release by the company.