A new study by researchers at Columbia University suggests that West Virginia’s use of educational technology has directly led to significant gains in reading, math, and language skills among the state’s K-6 students.
Commissioned by the Milken Exchange on Education Technology, the report marks the first time a long-term statewide technology program has been studied for its effectiveness in schools–and some of the first real evidence supporting the use of computers to improve basic skills in the early grades.
The study examined West Virginia’s Basic Skills/Computer Education (BS/CE) program, one of the nation’s longest-running statewide programs for implementing technology in education.
Launched in 1990, the BS/CE program now encompasses all students in grades K-6. The program consists of three components: (1) integrated learning system software that focuses on the state’s basic skills goals; (2) enough computers so that each student has easy and regular access to the software; and (3) training for teachers in the use of the software to improve student learning.
According to the West Virginia Department of Education, scores have steadily risen on state standardized tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since the program’s initial implementation. In fact, West Virginia was one of only two states cited for three categories of improvement in NAEP math achievement in 1996, the department said.
The Milken study, led by Profs. Dale Mann of the Columbia University Teachers College and Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University, suggests that as much as one-third of the gains made by the state’s K-6 students can be directly attributed to the BS/CE program. The study also concludes that West Virginia’s program is more cost-effective than hiring more teachers or reducing class sizes.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Henry Marockie hailed the study as a clear indication of the program’s success.
“This [study] clearly points to the value of technology in the classroom,” Marockie said. “It links what’s happened in the program directly to student achievement–and that’s the program’s ultimate purpose.”
The new study also challenges critics’ assertion that scant evidence exists to link technology with student achievement, Marockie said: “It shows that the nay-sayers were wrong–with proper teacher training, you can use technology in the classroom to improve the achievement of all students, regardless of their gender, race, or level of income.”
The West Virginia study partly contradicts a nationwide study of 14,000 fourth- and eighth-graders also commissioned by the Milken Exchange and published by Education Week in October 1998. Researched by the New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service (ETS), the 1998 study concluded that computer applications increased the test scores of fourth-graders only marginally–and therefore were not likely to be cost-effective solutions.
“To the extent that the primary benefit of computers lies in applying higher order skills, there may not be much opportunity to benefit from using computers before middle school,” the ETS report said.
But according to the West Virginia study, when the first class of students to participate in the BS/CE program took the statewide California Test of Basic Skills as third-graders, their scores went up five points over the previous year’s average. Before that, the state’s scores had risen an average of 1.5 points per year, six points in four years.
Looking at the performance of 950 fifth-graders on the Stanford-9 achievement test in 1998, the West Virginia study found significant one-year gains in the scores measuring students’ basic math, reading, and writing skills. From 1997 to 1998, the students’ scores increased an average of 14 points on a test in which the scores range from 400-800.
By isolating and comparing several factors, researchers concluded that the BS/CE program was directly responsible for as much as one-third of the students’ test score gains. That estimate is conservative, researchers added, since it measures only single-year growth rather than the program’s cumulative effect.
Though the ETS study also found a gap in the way computers were being used to teach black and white students nationwide, the West Virginia study found no difference between the achievements of black and white students. In fact, the BS/CE program was found to be highly successful in equalizing opportunities for rural and low-income students: According to the study, the greatest improvement in basic skills occurred among children without computers at home.
Finally, an analysis of the program’s costs by Lew Solmon, economist and senior scholar for the Milken Family Foundation, countered the ETS study’s assertion that technology might not be worth the investment in lower grades. Solmon found that the implementation of technology through West Virginia’s BS/CE program was significantly more cost-efficient than other interventions such as class-size reduction.
Reasons for success
Much of the program’s success can be attributed to its tight focus and the fact that it was controlled at the state level, Marockie said.
“We narrowly designed the program to focus on clearly articulated goals for improving math, reading, and language skills because those were the areas of most concern to us,” Marockie said. “Previously, we were trying to define the program, but that became difficult as more and more needs got added. So we did the reverse: defined what we wanted to accomplish, and the vendors told us solutions based on those goals.”
By controlling the program at the state level, West Virginia made sure each of its schools had equal, across-the-board access to technology. The state also implemented the program from the bottom up, one grade level at a time.
Beginning with the kindergarten class of 1990-91, West Virginia invested $7 million to equip each school with four computers and a printer per kindergarten classroom, plus a school-wide networked file server. As that kindergarten class advanced each year, the state spent an additional $7 million to equip the classrooms of each successive grade level, so that the technology has now been implemented in each of the state’s schools for grades K-6.
Schools had a choice of software from two vendors, IBM and Jostens Learning Corp. The software packages consisted of integrated learning systems that conformed to the state’s standards of learning for math, reading, and language skills. The computers themselves were the same throughout the state–so once a teacher learned how to use the computer, he or she didn’t have to relearn on another machine.
“The fact that it was standardized is, in my opinion, the single most important factor in the success of the program,” Marockie said. “In the lion’s share of school districts, you have so many factors that change all the time: students moving, teachers teaching different grade levels, and so on. By standardizing the program for all schools, we were able to control those ‘uncontrollable’ variables.”
Teacher training was another factor that distinguished the BS/CE program. Before any equipment was installed in the classrooms, teachers were thoroughly trained in the use of the software and how it could aid classroom instruction. The state spent roughly 30 percent of the program’s cost on training its teachers.
West Virginia now will go back and re-evaluate the technology in grades K-1, Marockie said. The state also will continue to expand the program into the upper grades with an emphasis on higher-level skills.
West Virginia Department of Education
Milken Exchange on Education Technology
Columbia University Teachers College
Educational Testing Service
Jostens Learning Corp.