iPads, laptops not yet improving students’ test scores

Published 6:56 pm Friday, July 21, 2017

By Christopher Magan, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Five years after Twin Cities schools began transforming classrooms by putting computers in the hands of students, there is little hard evidence the shift has improved academic achievement.

At least nine east metro school districts have programs that issue laptops or tablet computers to students. In the rest, students share technology through computer labs and laptop carts or bring their own devices from home.

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“It keeps enhancing and changing what we can do,” said Jay Haugen, superintendent of Farmington schools, one of the first Twin Cities districts to provide every student with an Apple iPad.

More than 75,000 students in St. Paul and its suburbs have a school-issued device they take home every day, and the remaining students have access to devices at school.

Last school year, east metro districts spent more than $17 million on student technology.

The biggest bills were in the largest districts. St. Paul spent $9 million, and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan spent about $2.7 million. Smaller districts where students share devices had significantly lower bills, such as the $250,000 student technology budget in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district.

Meanwhile, student scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, which are given each year in English, mathematics and science, have largely remained stagnant.

Furthermore, Minnesota’s work to close the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their peers has not been as successful as educators had hoped. Students who are black, Hispanic and Native American continue to score proficient on state tests at significantly lower rates than white students.

Will results take more time?

Supporters of more technology in the classroom say they are not surprised performance on state tests has not yet improved. They say putting devices in the hands of students and teachers is just the first step, and that the implementation of new teaching strategies takes time.

Hans Ott, St. Paul Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said since the district first distributed iPads in 2014 a lot of time has been spent getting teachers and students accustomed to the devices and their potential.

“We knew this process was going to take time at this scale. We knew it was going to be a heavy lift,” Ott said. “We are now really digging into the academic phase.”

That means moving teachers from using tablets as a substitute for traditional materials to rethinking and redesigning their instruction. The evolution won’t happen quickly in a district of 39,000 students.

“We know in a system our size, to have one thing happen simultaneously across the district is a challenge,” Ott said.

Other technology supporters question whether an increase in MCA scores is the best evidence of success. They say the tests are a poor judge of students’ overall academic skills and interests.

“Why is everything based on test scores?” said Farmington’s Haugen. “The whole idea is having students who are finding their spark and their passion and creating their own learning pathways.”

Stacey Gray Akyea, director of research and assessment for the St. Paul district, agrees that MCA scores are not the perfect measure of success. But she does believe technology will boost student achievement once teachers modify their instruction to take advantage of the devices’ potential.

“Ultimately, the MCA is the state’s measure of students meeting grade-level standards,” she said.

Offering personal lessons

A big selling point for providing technology to students was not necessarily ubiquitous access to information, but the way instruction could be individualized.

Educators who tout the benefits of technology typically describe this type of personalized learning as “meeting every student where they are.”

Basically, it means in a math class of 30 students studying fractions, each student’s lesson on a given day can be slightly different. Some students can work on fundamentals while those who have mastered early concepts can move on to more advanced problems.

In a typical paper-and-pencil classroom, it’s tough for a teacher to keep up with every student’s needs. But the growing catalog of educational software is supposed to make it easier.

Lars Esdal, executive director of Education Evolving, a St. Paul-based group focused on improving education, says there is growing evidence that personalized learning can increase student academic performance and close achievement gaps.

A national study the RAND Corp. did for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found students who received personalized instruction had gains in math that were 3 percentage points higher than other students. There were also increases in reading scores, but the RAND research didn’t find them to be as statistically significant.

Esdal added that just because a school has more technology doesn’t mean all students are receiving a more personalized education. Teachers who use tablets and laptops simply to replace books and worksheets likely won’t see as much academic payoff.

“Teachers need the time and autonomy not just to install technology that is given to them, but to find out how to meaningfully integrate technology into students’ learning experiences,” Esdal said.

Given that some districts are in the initial stages of training teachers and implementing technology into daily instruction, Esdal agrees it is too early to tell if the shift is having an impact.

Meeting special needs

Portable computers also create other unique opportunities for teachers and students. One that holds the most promise is working with students who have special needs.

Jennifer Kiminski, a speech and language pathologist at Skyview Elementary in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district, recently won a $2,850 grant from Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, that provides her with iPads to work on students’ speech therapy.

In Kiminski’s “iPad Articulation Project,” students use the tablets to practice speech sounds after their one-on-one time with her. Students can record themselves practicing, judge their success and provide Kiminski a record of their progress.

“It is very nice because I can see more kids at once,” Kiminiski said, noting the large number of students she works with. “The human part can never be taken out of the equation, but in some ways it has been a saving grace for me.”

What if they’re watching Netflix?

Putting internet-connected devices in students’ hands does provide plenty of potential for distractions. Teachers who have spent the past decade dealing with students and cellphones know this all too well.

“I have kids who are watching Netflix while I teach,” said Ben Kirkham, a 10th-grade language arts teacher at White Bear Lake Area High School.

Kirkham says he’s split on the benefits of every student in his high school having a Chromebook laptop computer.

Kirkham likes how digital tools help students with grammar and punctuation and help him spot plagiarism. But he worries about the distractions and the long-term consequences of students constantly being online.

“It is hard to say if it is inherently bad or inherently good,” Kirkham said. “(The devices) are useful, but they are not making students better students.”

In fact, Kirkham says his pupils’ lives are so digitally submerged that they welcome a break from staring at screens. Some teachers at his school have championed “WiFi-free Wednesdays” to take a break from the digital world.

“Kids really prefer writing on paper these days. They also prefer holding a book in their hands rather than reading a PDF file,” Kirkham said. “I have kids who groan when I tell them everything is available online.”

Continued growth

As tablets and laptop computers replace more textbooks and worksheets, educators say it’s important to strike the right balance between technology’s vast potential and its inherent flaws.

That will take thoughtful leadership from school officials as well as collaboration among teachers, students and parents. In St. Paul, Ott says using iPads to improve the parent-student-school connection is an important goal for the coming year.

Just as essential is helping teachers explore new ways to deliver their curriculum. The transition will require educators to take chances and share their success and failures.

“That will lead us to answering the question: Does this help students learn?” Ott said.

One thing is clear: Despite the debate about technology’s impact on learning, there will be more and more of it in the classroom. That’s a good thing for tech-evangelists like Farmington’s Haugen, who says he has always questioned why schools are expected to be insulated from the new tools and trends of the rest of society.

“Think about how long our world has been that way,” Haugen said of the proliferation of smartphones, iPads and laptops. “It’s interesting we have to check at the door of the learning environment what works in the rest of the world.”

At a glance

Three ways schools provide students with technology:

* One-to-one. Every student is assigned a tablet or laptop for the year.

* Shared. Classes share devices that are stored in computer labs or on carts that can be moved from room to room.

* BYOD. Students are encouraged to “bring your own device” to use in class, and those without devices can borrow one from the school.