NWEA: Speech Recognition Technology Evaluates Out-Loud Reading for Students

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Company: NWEA (formerly the Northwest Evaluation Association)

If you have an elementary-school student in your life, you’ve probably heard bellyaching about days filled with pop quizzes and standardized tests. Though in reality those events come up far less than your little friends would have you believe, chances are that they’ve been assessed using materials developed by the NWEA. The Portland, Ore., nonprofit has created a MAP Suite of assessments in areas like reading and math that school districts use to formally measure the growth and proficiency of their students in kindergarten through eighth grade.


Business Challenge

When kids are learning to read, they undergo oral assessments to ensure they’re reading to grade level, including recognizing words they should know and using them correctly in sentences. With the traditional reading assessment, students read in one-on-one sessions with their teacher. But that method significantly cuts into teaching and learning time, as teachers are tied up evaluating students’ reading performances and other students are kept busy until it's their turn. The not-for-profit organization sought a way to streamline oral evaluations to save school districts time and money while still ensuring students are on track.

Vendor of Choice: LanguaMetrics

The company develops tools that, among other uses, can help users improve English-language speaking and reading. LanguaMetrics creates books using its spoken word tools or uses its speech recognition and spoken word tools to create tests. LanguaMetrics partnered with SRI International to create The MAP Reading Fluency platform for NWEA. The tool—which uses speech recognition and spoken word technology—assesses students’ words as they read out loud and automatically assess a student’s ability to be understood. The SRI software development toolkit allows for speech recognition and pronunciation scoring technology within the LanguaMetrics application.


The Problem in Depth 

When children are learning to read “you have to keep your eye out. If they’re not growing, it’s a red flag and you need to intervene,” says NWEA product manager Jennifer Knestrick, who oversees learning assessments.

School districts require teachers to evaluate oral reading fluency for students ages 4 to 8, when they’re emerging readers. Teachers look at the number of words students read correctly out loud. Usually, a teacher, aide, or instructor will listen to each student read from a book or an online text while they track accuracy on a sheet of paper or on a tool tied to online text. 

“Each teacher is still doing it on the fly and in real time,” Knestrick says. 

With each evaluation taking 20 to 30 minutes it’s easy to see why school districts have been looking to streamline the process to save time and costs. Sometimes they’ll hire substitute teachers or other qualified instructors to carry out tests to free teacher time and save evaluation costs, she adds.

The assessments themselves are based on standards from organizations like the National Reading Panel. A three-year analysis carried out by the panel found, in 2000, that the best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates:

  • explicit instruction in phonemic awareness;
  • systematic phonics instruction;
  • methods to improve fluency; and
  • ways to enhance comprehension.

This approach holds across the country, though specific approaches to reading and fluency vary by state, Knestrick says.

“Traditional oral reading assessment is based on a time-consuming 30-year-old method that frustrates teachers and disrupts learning time,” she says.

Her team sought a method to streamline these oral-fluency assessments by removing instructors from the evaluation equation with the help of speech technology. 

Knestrick knew that a computer-enabled speech recognition oral application would free up students’ and teachers’ time by doing away with one-on-one evaluations. It would also give teachers quicker feedback about students’ comprehension and pronunciation so they can more quickly gauge how to best coach struggling students.

“Teachers want a way to tailor their reading instruction to students’ different needs and online speech technology can provide that,” Knestrick adds.

The Solution 

Students access the new MAP Reading Fluency online program with a headset and microphone. At their own pace, they work through a series of evaluations. They read passages out loud and answer questions out loud about comprehension. The results are recorded, saved to the cloud, and automatically scored using the speech scoring technology.

The speech technology platform is from LanguaMetrics’ and uses the speech recognition and scoring technology EduSpeak, which assesses beginning reader behavior, including word- and line-skips.

In January, NWEA released MAP Reading Fluency to 180 beta testers in 50 states. In summer 2018 it rolled out the speech-recognition to all NWEA users. 

The tool adjusts to accommodate pre-readers as well as early and fluent readers. Early readers are prompted by a friendly narrator to answer questions about the words they’ve just read, Knestrick says. “They can do all the things in kindergarten or first-grade curriculum, like letter identification, blending sounds to make words, and listening comprehension,” she says. “If they identify letters but can’t, for example, read some words, their results will get flagged to their teacher.

“Otherwise, students read three passages of about 200 words and the difficulty level adjusts to them where they are,” Knestrick adds. “We’ve crafted it to take 20 minutes for everyone. We’ve found that’s the sweet spot for attention.”

Because it exists in the cloud, the evaluation can be taken on any device, including the Chromebooks, iPads, and desktops widely available in school dis­tricts. The speech recognition aspect can pinpoint students who sound like fluent readers but still struggle with comprehension, Knestrick says.

The assessment can be given up to three times a year. Teachers can access individual results and also see results by groups, which helps them get a bird’s eye view into how their classes are doing as a whole. They can use those results to group students by reading level and to further evaluate prosody and analyze miscues. 

Teachers can also share audio yearbooks with parents to demonstrate their children’s reading growth. 

School and district leaders can use the software dashboard to group results by, for example, three schools within the district. Breaking down evaluations in this way offers even more insight into overall reading behavior.

The Outcome

In the “very conser­vative” estimate of beta testers, the solution provides a fivefold cost savings over instructors individ­ually assessing each student’s reading level, Knestrick says.

Having immediate online access to reading results saves school districts and individual teachers time they’d otherwise spend physically grouping results to flag students who are lagging so they can get them specialized attention. 

“The savings will vary a lot depending on what a district has done in the past; if they’ve hired substitutes to do assessments, their savings can get into the hundreds of thousands for a mid-sized school district,” she says.

The overall result: better reading outcomes than districts have, perhaps, ever seen in the past, Knestrick says. 

“We’ve done validation with our expansive research team who helped develop the LanguaMetrics software it gets delivered in,” Knestrick says.

“All that money saved stems from the assessments being one-to-many instead of one-to-one,” she says. “That savings is really only limited by the real estate available.” By real estate, she means the computers and tablets on which the speech technology is accessed.

To put it succinctly, Knestrick says, “Using speech technology to provide reading and comprehension judgments is a sea change in assessment.” 

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