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With choice of testing devices, one LAUSD school chooses old reliable

Vanessa Romo | March 17, 2015

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computer lab testingRobert Frost Middle School Principal, Francisco Ayala had his choice of iPads, Chromebooks or desktop computers for his students to take the state-mandated computerized Smarter Balanced test.

The wireless iPads and Chromebooks represent part of a huge, $500 million technology investment by LA Unified that, just last year, was hailed as a pioneering effort to bridge the digital divide, a modern civil rights struggle.

But given the choice, Ayala didn’t want the shiny new devices for the test. He opted for the old technology — because it works.

“Once again, I am proud to report that our collective goal of having all Frost students using a real computer, instead of a tablet, has been met,” he announced on the school’s website yesterday, the first day eighth graders at the school began taking the exam. Eventually, all classes will cycle through one of the school’s three computer labs for the Common Core-aligned test, he explained.

“We discovered that the iPads were a little bit frustrating to the students,” he told LA School Report. “The screen was a little bit too small and the calibration of the screens needed to be tailored to each individual student, and that takes a lot.”

This can hardly come as welcome news to district officials, who have been debating for months the proper use of digital devices for instruction and testing. While hardly dispositive of the entire district, the choice at Robert Frost suggests that the school board has fallen short in assessing the attractiveness of tablets compared with more reliable hardwired desktops. It also suggests that principals, teachers and students didn’t have enough input in decision-making, if they had any at all.

Board Member Bennett Kayser raised the issue at last week’s school board meeting.

Despite months of preparation and costly modernizing projects by LA Unified, a district-wide practice run of the Smarter Balanced test earlier this month revealed a variety of technical issues. While most problems were caused by a crash of the state-operated testing website, many others stemmed from internet connectivity issues at the district and school levels. One third of students participating in the dress rehearsal, were unable to complete the test.

“Would [the practice run] have been better if students worked in computer labs? Were there less system issues in computer labs or with devices that were provided to students throughout the year?” Kayser asked Cynthia Lim, the district’s head of data and accountability,

Her response: “We didn’t collect that kind of data of, was it easier or was it a smoother experience. We just know that schools, whether they used desktops or Chromebooks, everyone encountered some kind of issue.”

But a report on the outcomes of the same exam last year, found students who took the test on a hardwired desktop experienced fewer technical snags than those on wireless devices. And, the “Chair’s Report on the Common Core Technology Project Ad Hoc Committee” spearheaded by board member Monica Ratliff, stated, “Anecdotal evidence was presented that desktop computers and/or devices with larger screens were the preferred device for test taking.”

The test is split into three distinct sections — English language, math and an essay — that must be taken on a computer. The exam is designed to be computer adaptive, changing the difficulty of questions based on previous answers, which is supposed to allow for more pointed assessments and results.

Ayala didn’t feel the need to wait for the district to decide which device was better. He listened to feedback from his students and stuck with what worked best for them.

At the end of the day, the first full day of test-taking, Ayala was happy with his student’s progress in the computer labs: no computer meltdowns and no reports of technical snafus.

“We were ready, and Frost is doing very well, ” he said. “We wanted to give our students the best advantage of taking the test in a very comfortable setting. It’s working for us.”

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