By Aaron Lighter
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
A major initiative designed to bring Baltimore County public schools into the 21st century has helped improve the math and reading abilities of students even as some teachers continue to worry that the laptop computers at the center of the four-year-old program are sometimes misused by students for game playing and other nonacademic activities, according to a report presented to the Board of Education Tuesday.
The report presented by representatives of The Center for Research and Reform in Education at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, said that county students in the program in grades three to six had higher proficiency rates on standardized exams than before the program began.
Grades three to five all saw proficiency changes higher than other districts and the state as a whole on the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams. For the ELA proficiency changes, grades three to five all saw positive changes, while grade six saw a drop of 6.17 points, the report said.
Dr. Jennifer R. Morrison, as assistant professor at Hopkins who helped conduct the analysis, said the test scores were a positive sign for the county’ Student and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT) program, which was implemented in the 2014-2015 academic year as a way to improve student engagement and prepare students for a 21st century learning environment.
“The impacts of STAT. on student achievement remain encouraging but still indeterminate given the still relatively short duration of the initiative,” the report stated.
The STAT program was implemented to transform BCPS into “a complete 21st century technology learning environment to prepare globally-competitive graduates.”
Under the program, students are given a digital learning device of their own to work on during school and take home if they choose to. Classrooms are designed to be student centered rather than teacher focused. The program is part of BCPS’s Blueprint 2.0 theory of action, to equip all students with the 21st century necessary to be competitive globally.
As part of the initiative, the staff at John Hopkins Center for Research and Reform in Education conducts annual reviews to measure the progress of STAT. The report presented to the board on Tuesday was part of that review process. Morrison presented to the report with her colleague, Steven R. Ross, who is a senior research scientist and professor at Hopkins.
The research showed that the integration of technology in the school district indicated high student engagement, improved student achievement and increased student-centered instruction, Morrison said.
Students in all four observed S.T.A.T cohorts exceeded the national average for meeting growth expectations of 50 percent in Mathematics and Reading/ELA MAP examinations, according to the report. The four cohorts either remained stable or saw increase in PARCC scores in the same subjects, the report said.
The report also recommended that BCPS give the teachers more planning time and targeted professional development. It was also recommended that middle school students store their laptops at the school, as teachers reported students not charging their devices and leaving them at home, according to the report.
Despite the growth in tests scores, there were concerns about the program.
Morrison said that teachers noticed that “students often misuse the devices” and that “recreational use of devices… was the most frequent problem observed by teachers.”
Board member Ann Miller said she heard students were viewing “gaming sites and pornographic material, things that really should be caught by our firewalls.”
The report also found that teachers, principals, parents and students liked the program.
However, multiple board members wondered if the teachers felt pressured to give positive feedback on the program.
“There’s been widespread pressure,” Board member Kathleen Causey said. “So, it’s not surprising that the teachers and principals report technology integration is occurring. Of course, it is. Do they have a choice?”
This was echoed by an elementary school teacher on the Facebook page for Board member Julie Henn, which Henn delivered to Ross and Morrison.
“Julie, did you know how much intimidation took place during the first three years of STAT?” said elementary school teacher Annmarie Albert in one of the comments. “Any teacher who questioned its efficacy was highly pressured to write positives. Fact.”
Causey echoed that, saying that “if teachers know the administration wants this program to succeed, it makes sense that they would respond to that pressure and try to facilitate what the desire is.”