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Further Evolution of Research Question and Problem Statement

October 24, 2010

Graduate Project Problem Statement

Graduate Project Background

The culminating graduate project for my Written Communication, Professional Writing MA at EMU involves working with teachers and parents of students at Summers-Knoll (SK) School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Summers-Knoll is an independent, kindergarten through fifth grade school that focuses on traditional liberal arts content delivered in a cross-curricular, experiential format. Through embedded learning and developmental objectives and qualitative performance assessment, students’ energies are channeled into how to learn as opposed to what to learn. Students and families are involved in curricular decision making, and they also play active roles in assessing student performance through the use of the school’s two primary assessment tools: Work Sampling System (WSS), a narrative-based assessment tool developed by the University of Michigan, and portfolios. I taught grades one through seven (the middle school program has since disbanded) at SK from 2002 to 2008. I remain committed to the school’s educational philosophy and mission, and I am excited to be working with the SK community again, albeit in a new function.

SK is currently working with graduate students from the University of Michigan’s School of Information to develop digital student portfolio wireframes. The head of school at SK has asked me to participate in the project by working on a team to develop the communication component of this venture, facilitate usability testing on the completed wireframes, and conduct secondary research into the implementation of digital portfolios in K-12 settings and their ability to capture quantitative student performance data via qualitative means. Further, I will facilitate usability testing on the school’s own website and evaluate WSS’s web-based version (teachers currently produce WSS evaluations in hardcopy) through additional usability testing, teacher and parent interviews, and teacher and parent questionnaires. My data collection will begin in winter 2011, and I will wrap up my study by late summer 2011. Little research exists on digital portfolio implementation and assessment in elementary school settings, and I hope to contribute meaningfully to this burgeoning field of inquiry.


The Problem

SK practices progressive instruction and student evaluation. Parents of students at SK become familiar with the school’s philosophy and practices during the in-depth application process. Despite the parent buy-in, or understanding, of SK’s teaching methodologies, a minority of parents expresses concern that skills developed at SK may not be transferable to more conventional learning environments. This concern appears to heighten as students rise through the grades and middle school looms. Though the school offers annual, optional, standardized testing to students in grades 4-5, some parents would prefer a balanced assessment approach that incorporates norms-based measures. While this is contrary to the philosophy of SK, I believe that quantitative performance data can be generated if SK switches to digital portfolios and the web-based WSS assessment tools. I posit that these data can be — and already are — generated via the current assessment tools. What digital portfolios and web-based WSS assessments offer are reinterpretations of student performance data that can be captured in quantifiable terms. By moving student assessment onto digital platforms, SK can remain faithful to the mission of its founders, incorporate technology into instruction and assessment in meaningful ways, and meet the needs and wants of parents with seemingly conflicting agendas.


My Research Questions

Should Summers-Knoll School move from hardcopy to digital portfolios? Should Summers-Knoll School move from the pen and paper version of the University of Michigan’s Work Sampling System to the new web-based version?

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