Computers in schools: For testing or for teaching?

A Richfield Middle School student named Louis takes a Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test in the school's media center. (Sun staff photo by Andrew Wig)
A Richfield Middle School student named Louis takes a Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test in the school’s media center. (Sun staff photo by Andrew Wig)

The Scantron lives.

The brand-name answer sheets, which come covered with ovals to be filled in completely with a No. 2 pencil, were until recently the standard way to take a standardized test.

They are yet to be abandoned, however, as some educators are ditching online, computer-based standardized testing and reverting to the lead-and-paper method as they wrestle with how best to use a finite resource.

With limited computer lab space, schools now face the challenge of striking a balance between using the technology for instructional purposes and for testing.

As the evaluations migrate online, schools are finding less time to use the machines for actual instruction as computer labs become clogged with test-takers.

“Last year it was fierce,” said Angela Dorendorf, assessment and evaluation technician for Richfield Schools, addressing the demand in her district’s labs.

“Do you know how much (standardized) testing we actually do?” Richfield Schools Supt. Robert Slotterback asked one inquirer. “We basically test students from September through April.”

In Richfield, on top of national assessments and monthly graduation testing, each spring and fall brings three weeks of the online-only Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing, a voluntary in-house test that districts commonly use.

This month, teachers are beginning to prepare students for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs).

Richfield is opting for the old-fashined method instead of online testing at most of its schools this spring. The Edina School District also switched back to pencil and paper for many MCA tests this year.

With the paper exams, instead of shuffling students in and out of the computer labs for weeks at a time and taking up valuable computer resources, the next round of MCA testing can now be finished in two days, freeing up the computers for instruction, Dorendorf said. The decision to embrace the old school method was the result of teacher feedback on  computer policies.

“I know that teachers often make complaints that they can’t get into the labs for instruction because the lab is booked up for testing,” Dorendorf said.

That scenario has also been the case at Eden Prairie High School, said Executive Director of Technology Josh Swanson, but that is changing.

This year Eden Prairie middleschoolers each received iPads to use in school and take home. Next year, each high school student will be handed an 11-inch MacBook Air laptop computer, machines that will serve as the district’s newest implement for standardized testing.

The district is calling the initiative [email protected],” and plans to spend $1.5 million annually — 1.5 percent of its budget — on the program in the coming years, with a student-to-device ratio of one-to-one, Swanson said.

The new resources in Eden Prairie match an overall trend in education.

“There are more and more teachers who want to do inventive things around technology,” said John Weisser, director of technology at Bloomington Schools.

But in many districts, the resources haven’t caught up with the demand. Weisser, too, hears the common complaint that too many computer resources are being devoted to testing.

“That is an issue,” he said. “We heard that on a fairly regular basis because it does eat up those resources.”

The Bloomington School District, which unlike some of its neighbors is sticking mainly with online testing, has about 5,000 computers for a student population of 10,159, Weisser said.

According to the industry standard, though, that is not enough. TIES, which provides technology services to many Minnesota public schools, recommends that districts make a one-to-one ratio their goal.

That is what it would take to eliminate the computerized conflict between instruction and testing, says Steve Buettner, director of media and technology for the Edina School District.

Even in Edina, where technology funding is more plentiful, Buettner notes a strain on computer labs. “You start seeing that there is a choke-hold on the resource,” he said, “unless every kid has a device.”


Richfield Middle  School seventh-grader Jamille Jackson winces as she watches a video about the human digestion system during science class. (Sun staff photo by Andrew Wig)
Richfield Middle School seventh-grader Jamille Jackson winces as she watches a video about the human digestion system during science class. (Sun staff photo by Andrew Wig)

The money

As they work to balance instructional use with testing, schools typically fund technology measures with special levies based on annual property tax values.

Richfield gets most of its money for computers from a technology levy worth about $1.3 million annually, but the funding expires this year. Slotterback says he is confident he can make a compelling argument when the district asks voters this fall to renew the technology levy.

The Richfield district is still evaluating how much to request of its residents, who will be voting on a levy referendum of one sort or another for the third consecutive year. As Slotterback tries to woo them, part of his argument will come with an explanation of the district’s technology infrastructure.

Before achieving the one-to-one ideal, the network of cables, wires and routers in Richfield Schools would need to be overhauled.

“I’m confident it’s not going to be hard to explain where all the money goes,” Slotterback said, noting the limitations within his own office, which is attached to Richfield High School.

He said he uses three wireless devices daily — a computer, a smartphone and an iPad — and can connect only his computer to the building’s network. He says he uses a cellular data plan for the other gadgets.

“If all three devices went through the district, we’d need a lot bigger pipeline to handle all that data,” Slotterback said.

The one-to-one goal marks a dramatic change from the standards of just a decade ago, the last time Richfield Schools went out for a technology levy.

Then, Slotterback noted, the district’s goal in getting the now-expiring levy approved was to have one computer for every 6 students. The district now has one computer for every three, he said.

Still, the Richfield superintendent looks longingly at the resources of districts like Eden Prairie, or even St. Louis Park, where he noted teachers each have their own laptops. “Those are things we are moving toward, but these things cost money,” he said.

Edina, which is rolling out its own program to put tablets in the hands of students, has an annual technology levy of $4.5 million, which covers about 80 percent of the district’s technology budget, according to Buettner.

Coming in at $550 per student — compared, for example, to the $340 per student that Richfield’s technology levy raises annually — the Edina technology levy was approved in 2011 and allowed for the purchase of 800 total iPads and minimalist Chromebook laptops. On top of that, Edina has about 3,800 computers for a student population of about 8,200.

The district operates on a $6.1 million per year technology levy, bolstering the funds for the “i-Learn” program with money from its capital improvements budget, Swanson said.

Bloomington has about 5,000 computers and a student population of about 10,150, funded by a $2.7 million technology levy, according to Weisser.


The skeptics

To have their best chance at renewing their own technology levy, Richfield Schools must convince a certain set of voters why the district needs such a technological emphasis in the first place.

That group is not convinced that learning should be so dependent on fiber optics and high-definition displays. The suggestion that the district lower its emphasis on technology would be to turn its back on the modern world, Richfield educators say.

“We are preparing kids for a world where technology is everything,” Slotterback said. “I would argue that computers are part of that.”

Like it or not, once a district ramps up the technology quotient, there is no reversing course, according to Richfield’s Dorendorf. “Once you go through the door, you can’t go back,” she said.

There is little debate among educators on what constitutes the best use of digital resources: Instruction trumps testing.

“I think that when it comes to learning, instruction obviously beats testing hand down,” Dorendorf said.

Online testing does have its advantages, though. It is easier to grade and some tests are adaptive, in that the questions vary depending on the test-taker’s answers.

“But what is the cost for us?” Buettner wondered.

Swanson believes the value of digital instruction is the personalized learning it allows, with educational programs that can provide students real-time feedback as they participate.

“When students get that feedback in the moment, that’s the power of how we can harness the technology,” Swanson declared.

Educators should be able to do that more and more as tablet devices like the iPad become increasingly accessible, predicted Buettner. Although challenges regarding security and stability issues mean that standardized testing on tablets is not yet a reality, such devices cost as little as $200, he said, highlighting a price point that could offer relief to schools’ heavily taxed computer resources.

“The idea of going to the lab to take the test would be null and void,” Buettner said. “It’d be really intriguing for me to see that format.”

He calls that scenario “my Nirvana.”

Educators are anticipating less-than blissful news regarding online testing requirements. Currently, with a few exceptions for specific tests, online MCA testing is voluntary, but that is expected to change.

When Dorendorf meets with the Minnesota Department of Education and the subject of mandatory online testing comes up, “they say, ‘Not right now,’” she said, “but with the state, they can change their minds any day.”

Buettner also has his doubts that online testing will remain optional for long.

“I suspect that’s not going to stay,” he said.


Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected]