Academic Standards Network: An iSchool success story

In 1996, University of Washington Information School (iSchool) Professors Stuart Sutton and Mike Eisenberg, then at the Syracuse University, wanted to solve an information problem: How do you effectively map K-12 learning resources, like teachers’ lessons plans, to state academic standards so educators could find and use them in the classroom?

“At that time, competency frameworks were becoming more and more critical to effectively designing learning experiences and resources that met K-12 student needs and in assessing whether what a student should be learning had been learned,” says Sutton, now iSchool associate professor emeritus.

Early attempts to solve this problem involved hand-entering descriptive metadata into GEM (Gateway to Education Materials), a software system developed at the Information Institute at Syracuse under the direction of Eisenberg. The results were error-prone and, as Sutton describes it, “so pitiful that it was never exposed to the public.”

Sutton didn’t give up. Now at the iSchool, he started work again in 2001 with Syracuse Professor Liz Liddy and funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Continued NSF support and additional funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with a new collaborator, JES & Co, a non-profit organization dedicated to education of youth, resulted in the Achievement Standards Network (ASN).

Today, ASN is a highly successful and freely available resource description framework that has grown to incorporate 400,000 learning outcomes. As of March 1, 2014, JES & Co. transferred operations and future development of the ASN and its cloud-based services and resources to Desire2Learn (D2L) under license from the University of Washington and JES & Co. D2L is a global company serving education and training based in Canada with a commitment to maintenance of open public access to the ASN.

ASN provides users with a digital catalog of standards that can be viewed, searched, downloaded and applied to curriculum. Each standard within the system is identified by an ID number. Users, such as a textbook or digital curriculum publisher, could use ASN to map pieces of their content to Common Core standards, as an example. The same curriculum could be aligned with other related learning activities through that ID number to address the same standard.

The ASN impact is very broad, according to Sutton. “We see the ASN data utilized in public and private sector applications such as ePortfolios and internal student reporting systems as competency-based teaching and learning put down deep roots into systems development in order to accommodate demands for more precise data on student learning.

“There is an extensive role for such data in support of longitudinal policy research into the efficacy of individual and aggregate frameworks and their correlation to actual student learning. In other words, the ASN data is a treasure-trove of data to help address education policy development and analysis of actual learning outcomes.”

Sutton used the Education Department as an example of the value of ASN: “One of the U.S. Department of Education's regional labs wanted to understand why students in a certain region of the U.S. did well on their state assessments and poorly on the National Assessments of Education Progress (NAEP). The causes could range from regional socio-economic factors through the quality of educational experiences to watered-down state standards. They turned to the ASN as the only public access point to machine-readable data on the state and NAEP competency frameworks to see if they could ferret out potential causes. 

“The result of the analysis of the ASN data was that a key issue leading to the misalignment was a critical difference in timing of student exposure in the states to learn experiences resulting in the competencies tested by NAEP.  Not only were they able to reach this conclusion as to a partial reason for the discrepancy, they were able to isolate the exact points state-by-state of the divergence (alignment gaps) at the level of individual competency assertions.”

Going forward, Sutton believes ASN is in good hand with D2L. “The process leading to the selection of D2L as the future home for the ASN was rigorous and involved engagement with over 12 candidate organizations selected from across public, private, governmental, and quasi-governmental sectors. The selection of D2L to lead ASN into the future was based on our conclusion that long-term sustainability of the ASN could be achieved only through private sector engagement.”

He also thinks about how the iSchool can best work with its own creation.

“The ASN could be a powerfully instrument in many potential research agendas. I envision many researchers picking up this baton and running with it -- in our iSchool here at UW, in other iSchools, in colleges of education, in policy think tanks, in labs looking at things like digital badging, personalized learning, big data and learning analytics.

“What began as an information problem for myself and Mike Eisenberg to solve evolved as the web changed the very nature of the education and training ecosystem. I hope the ASN continues to ride that wave of research and development.”