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UI researchers aid in learning ability research

BY GRACE PATERAS | NOVEMBER 10, 2014 5:00 AM

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Researchers at the University of Iowa have created a new way of testing struggling students, aiming to understand comprehension when it comes to learning in junior high.

“By the time students are in middle school, if they’re not reading well, it can be a critical time for students,” said Carolyn Brown, a cofounder of Foundations in Learning. “If they don’t catch on by high school, then they’re really lost.”

The tests, called Iowa Assessment of Skills and Knowledge for Automatic Word Recognition and Decoding, have been designed to help young students with their reading capabilities.

The test was developed by a collaboration of UI professors and Foundations in Learning officials.
According to its website, Foundations in Learning is an Iowa City organization designed to create intervention solutions for students that are scientifically based.

“A lot of students have deficits in educational skills that are hard to figure out,” Brown said. “They might have the foundational reading skills, but they don’t use them in a way that allows them to read well for comprehension.”

The first tests in the program started last week, and they will continue this week. A group of 60 junior-high students in Cedar Rapids were the first to be evaluated, and the test is designed to spread to more schools.

The main goal of the tests is to allow teachers to easily see the status of their students’ learning so they can focus on what their students aren’t grasping.

Computerized testing is unique in that it can evaluate students much faster than a paper-and-pencil test can, said UI Associate Professor Bob McMurray, a designer of the test.

By having a fast-paced testing program in use, teachers can benefit from the process.

“Students can do the assessment, and the computer can automatically give the teacher a report with graphics and statistics to target innovation,” McMurray said. “It will give instant feedback to the teachers and help them focus on instructions on skills their students might be missing.”

McMurray and collaborators have been working together intensely since August to get the program going. The grant for the project to begin was approved in August.

The way the program is designed will tell teachers more than just what the students are lacking, it will show exactly how individual students learn best.

“Many other programs try to identify problem areas for students,” Brown said. “What’s different about what we’re doing is we’re trying to find how they learn, not just what they’ve learned.”

If the first trial goes well, creators plan on applying for a larger grant for the program. Then, it can spread to more schools and benefit more students.

Iowa City School District officials said they would evaluate benefits of the program to decide if it’s necessary for junior-high schools in the community.

“[Officials will need to] see the research on the program to see if it is valid and reliable,” said Becky Furlong, an assistant superintendent in the School District. “With that information, we’d see what we think would be most helpful.”

Other evaluations of the program, as with all educational programs in the district, include whether the test aligns with curriculum and student-achievement scores to see what the students’ needs are.

District officials said if the program doesn’t spread to Iowa City, there are still other intervention programs for students who struggle with reading.

“Reading is such a foundational skill for academic success,” Furlong said. “There’s always a need to find what is the best way to provide instruction.”


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