Teacher Devan Benjamin, left, joined by professor Ted Christ, showed third-grader Rashad his reading progress after administering a one-minute FAST sample.Teacher Devan Benjamin, left, joined by professor Ted Christ, showed third-grader Rashad his reading progress after administering a one-minute FAST sample.

Empowering teachers to help students succeed

Tech start-up FastBridge Learning provides the next generation of classroom assessments—twice as fast and half the cost

At 11:45 every day, third-grade teacher Devan Benjamin calls two students to her desk, one at a time. Each reads part of a story for one minute. She listens and enters a little data in her computer. When she points to a graphic display on the screen that shows the student’s reading speed, accuracy, and progress since last time, she often sees a big smile. They talk about what’s going well, what to work on, and ideas for improving.

Benjamin’s school is part of Independent School District 622, which includes schools in North St. Paul, Maplewood, and Oakdale. District 622 has adopted the Formative Assessment System for Teachers, or FAST, to guide instruction in reading and mathematics.

FAST allows classroom teachers to assess students quickly, easily, and often. It generates data—including individual learning rates displayed graphically in “aim lines”—that identify the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of individual students. Because teachers routinely assess and can tailor their teaching to unique needs to ensure all succeed, the system is rewarding to teachers and students alike.

“I started getting calls from teachers asking, ‘Are we going to update the aim line for this student?’” says L. C. Webster Elementary School principal Mona Perkins.

“When you see a teacher cry because of the progress a student has made, you know you’re doing good work.”

What’s more, Perkins and instructional coach Susan Harmon can use the data and reporting systems in FAST to get the big picture, tracking achievement and school effectiveness.

Action research

FAST includes measures of reading, mathematics, and behavioral learning created and honed over years of research by educational psychology professor Theodore “Ted” Christ. Long before Christ (pronounced krisst) arrived in Minnesota in 2005, he relied on the work of Minnesota pioneers Stan Deno in curriculum-based measurement (CBM) and David Weiss in computer adaptive testing (CAT) to develop FAST.

“FAST is made to empower teachers,” says Christ. “They can engage in action research. They don’t have to rely on experts from somewhere else—they can collect data and discover what works in their classrooms, with their students, in real time.”

Christ knows classrooms and schools. He began his career in Massachusetts as a special education teacher. Then he worked as a school psychologist and researcher in Iowa and Mississippi. He saw the inefficiencies, stress, and frustrations caused by high-stakes testing, which he observed did little to support teachers.

Christ visited many more schools and worked side by side with teachers and staff to develop FAST. By 2010, it was a cloud-based system, making it easier for teachers and their schools to collect and use the data more effectively.

Customized coffee mug with Ted Christ and Mona Perkins in background
Using data to improve learning outcomes is part of the culture at L.C. Webster Elementary School, which adopted the FAST suite of classroom assessments. Principal Mona Perkins showed a customized mug from her instructional coach to FAST inventor Ted Christ.

At the time, Christ and his team were able to deliver and support FAST free to schools. But demand and adoption grew so quickly that his research team could not keep up. Christ realized that “free” meant no resources to support high-quality services and support. He decided to dedicate himself entirely to University research and the sustainability of FAST.

“I had to be more focused and give up other aspects of my professional life,” says Christ. “But I really believed in the purpose and vision of FAST. The sacrifices were worth building the infrastructure to make FAST all it could be.”

That required a start-up venture.

Laser focus

Christ introduced FAST to the University’s Office of Technology Commercialization, and three years later it became FastBridge Learning, LLC, which received its University license for FAST on March 15, 2015.

Today FastBridge Learning is headed by CEO Terri Soutor, a veteran in educational technology who shares Christ’s passion about young learners and teachers.

“When I learned about FAST and had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Christ, I got very excited,” says Soutor. “Working in the K–12 ed tech space for many years, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“Because of the genesis of this company at the University, plus the passion of Dr. Christ and the educators involved from the beginning—creating FAST with and for teachers—I knew it was a mission I wanted to be involved in,” she says. “And it’s been incredible.”

FAST is used by schools in 30 states, including a statewide adoption in Iowa. In 2014–15, FAST topped 5 million test administrations, a number expected to double this school year.

Revenue doubled in 2015 and is expected to grow another 50 percent this year. The staff of 15 has outgrown its current office space and is building out in downtown Minneapolis.

Soutor calls FastBridge Learning’s “laser focus” an advantage for a small company in the $2.5 billion dollar K–12 testing and assessment market.

“It’s really cool to be involved in something taking University research that, instead of being published and shelved, is put into practice so quickly,” says Soutor.

“Teachers can put this research and innovation to work in their classrooms within a year—that’s unheard of! It’s very exciting.”

Christ’s latest project, Teacher as Scientist, is research and development designed to help teachers think about their instructional decisions as hypotheses and encourage them to collect data to test how well their instruction is working.

“We rarely know for certain what will work for struggling students,” he says, “so collecting data can help us verify their learning.”

Last year Christ was named to head CEHD’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) to bring his experience and drive to schools across Minnesota.

Learn more about FastBridge Learning.

See also in this issue “Getting a higher yield on data in schools” about the Minnesota needs assessment conducted by CAREI.

FAST was the topic of a research feature in “A FAST read” in the fall 2012 issue of Connect.

Story by Gayla Marty | Photos by Jayme Halbritter | Spring/summer 2016