Computerized testing must accommodate all students, group warns

Computer-based assessment might seem like a cost-effective, less labor-intensive solution to meeting the increased testing demands of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), but a new report from the University of Minnesota’s National Center on Education Outcomes (NCEO) warns that simply transferring a paper-and-pencil test to a computer will not do.

The Aug. 5 report, called “Access to Computer-Based Testing for Students with Disabilities,” says poorly designed computer-based tests could reduce the validity of assessment results and exclude some groups of students—especially persons with disabilities—from completing the exams.

“For some kids, computers might help them do better—but for some [they] might be a distraction,” said Rachel Quenemoen, a senior fellow for technical assistance and research at the center.

NCLB requires states to have annual math and reading exams in place for all students in grades three through eight by the end of the 2005-06 school year and science tests in place by 2007-08. All students must do well on these tests, because school funding is at stake.

To help meet this challenge, many states are looking at computer-based testing because it provides immediate feedback, is known to improve student writing, and offers the ability to build in assistive technologies such as text enlargement or text readers.

But compared with paper-and-pencil tests, computerized assessments have a number of challenges that still have to be addressed, according to the report.

“When you move these kinds of tests to a computerized environment, you’d think the dynamics would remain the same—but in fact they [do] not,” Quenemoen said.

In a computerized environment, students have to scroll and type instead of turning pages and writing. Text size also is an issue. Not every computer displays text and images equally, which can give some students an unfair advantage.

“The state has to be very careful in defining what large print is on a computer,” Quenemoen said. “This is a fairly big issue, and you have to talk to your developer about this before you begin [designing a computer-based test].”

To create a fair testing environment, the report says, all students must have equal computer speeds and internet connections. “Do your kids have to wait five minutes for a new question to load?” Quenemoen said. “That won’t work if you are doing a high-stakes test.”

Other challenges include poor computer skills such as typing and navigation, the fact that some students might tire faster by reading text on a computer screen, and difficulties in reading long passages on a computer.

The report also questions whether schools have the technology infrastructure to test a large number of students at once, or whether teachers are trained to help with any technical difficulties that might occur.

“The word ‘crash’ has taken on a whole new meaning in our technology-oriented world,” the report says.

Educators also have to ensure the security of online data, the report says.

Even if educators have resolved these technology infrastructure issues, the test’s design must be effective as well. The report makes the following suggestions for designing computer-based tests suitable for all students, including those with disabilities or for whom English is a second language:

First, test makers should follow the seven principles of universally designed assessments.

In June, NCEO released a report called “Universal Design Applied to Large-Scale Assessments,” which identified seven design elements educators should follow for creating a computer-based test that would suit a wide range of students.

Here are NCEO’s seven elements: “inclusive assessment population; precisely defined constructs; accessible, non-biased items; amendable to accommodations; simple, clear, and intuitive instructions and procedures; maximum readability and comprehensibility; maximum legibility.”

NCEO recommends several steps to produce satisfactory computer-based tests:

First, test makers should have a clear definition of what they want to measure, aim for maximum readability, and provide clear, simple, and intuitive instructions, Quenemoen said.

“Retrofitting a paper-and-pencil test to be done on a computer may not be the best idea,” she added. “We recommend starting from the beginning with things that work rather than retrofitting.”

Second, test makers should assemble a group of experts to guide the transformation.

The team should include a variety of perspectives, including experts in design, web accessibility, assistive technology, and curriculum, as well as state and local assessment personnel and educators.

Next, test makers should decide how assistive technologies will be incorporated into the computer-based test.

Quenemoen recommends starting by identifying what skills need to be measured. For instance, if you are testing reading ability, then permitting a text reader doesn’t make sense. If you are only testing comprehension, then a permitting a text reader would be suitable.

Also, make sure you’re testing students’ content knowledge, not their computer skills. If a student has to use an unfamiliar computer during a test, it can be a distraction. “You want to measure [whether] they know the constructs, not ‘Gee, I’ve never used this kind of mouse before’ or ‘I’ve never seen that button before,'” Quenemoen said.

Lastly, consider training implications for staff and students.

“It is important to note that making computer-based testing amenable to assistive technology does not mean that students will automatically know what to do. Educators, especially special educators, need to be competent in technology knowledge and use,” the report says.

The caution expressed by the report is justified for those who would throw together online assessment quickly, said Lan W. Neugent, assistant superintendent of technology at the Virginia Department of Education.

Virginia administered 15,000 course-end tests by computer this past spring.

“Our project, which began in 2000, has been successful because we planned carefully, tested deliverables through demonstration projects, and worked systematically through technical and assessment issues,” Neugent said.

Neugent said Virginia has learned from last year’s exams and is still planning and making adjustments to the project as it moves toward its goal of having all school districts capable of administering the tests by 2004.

Walter Haney, a Boston College professor and senior research associate at the school’s Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Education Policy, said the report raises issues that have existed since the dawn of pencil-and-paper assessments.

“This issue of minor differences in format—text size—has been a long-recognized issue,” Haney said.

For example, in the mid-80s a “reading anomaly” occurred when results from the 1986 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed a steep decline in reading scores. Reportedly, formatting problems—small changes in font size and spacing—were to blame.

“Formatting in general, not just on computerized tests, can have a dramatic impact on results,” Haney said.


National Center on Educational Outcomes

“Access to Computer-Based Testing for Students with Disabilities”

NCEO Topic Area: Universally Designed Assessments

Virginia’s Web-based Standards of Learning Technology Initiative

Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Education Policy


$6 million in GIS software for innovative geography teaching

Intergraph Mapping and GIS Solutions will award GeoMedia Education Grants valued at more than $6 million. The grants will recognize innovative teaching that advances the use of geographic information sciences by educators and students in the classroom. Grants will be awarded on two levels: (1) community colleges, technical schools, and universities; and (2) K-12 primary and secondary schools. By taking advantage of these grants, students and teachers can use GeoMedia’s leading-edge technology to explore new possibilities and impact the future of geographic information systems (GIS). They can learn GIS principles and methodology, spatial analysis techniques, GIS data construction, and a variety of other application capabilities. Products that will be part of the grant program are GeoMedia Professional, GeoMedia WebMap Professional, IntelliWhere OnDemand, and IntelliWhere LocationServer with Intergraph’s powerful location-based services technology.


Tech-savvy teens say their schools’ web use lags

Thanks to the eRate and other initiatives to wire the nation’s schools, nearly three-fourths of all classrooms now have internet access. But some tech-savvy students argue the arrival of the internet means little to them when teachers and other stakeholders are ill-equipped or—worse—afraid to unlock its full potential, according to a national study released Aug. 15 on behalf of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The report, entitled “The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet-savvy Students and Their Schools,” is the result of a study of 14 focus groups with 136 middle and high school students and another 200 teenagers who responded independently to an online survey by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

The study is one of the first of its kind to evaluate school internet use through the eyes of students, and its findings bring to light a number of legitimate concerns about the integration of technology into America’s schools.

“Internet-savvy students are far ahead of their teachers and principals in taking advantage of online educational resources,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “Educators have a choice: Either they need to adapt, or they will be dragged into a new learning environment.”

According to the study, 78 percent of children ages 12 to 17 use the internet in school or at home. But the most internet-savvy among them say their teachers are less inclined to use the technology during class time, either because teachers lack the proper training to do so or because they are dissuaded by a number of factors, including risk, strict administrative policies, or the quality of online access in their schools.

“Most teens use the internet for school assignments and in other learning situations, but they say their internet use occurs mostly outside of the school day, outside of the school building, and outside of the direction of their teachers,” said Sousan Arafeh, AIR’s deputy project director for the study.

Today’s students, many of whom cannot remember a world without instant messages and eMail, told researchers the internet saves them time, helps them complete research, and provides quick answers to tough questions. Outside of school, students said, they frequent web sites pointed out to them by teachers, take advantage of online tutors, participate in virtual study groups, and even enroll in online classes.

Inside of school, however, students claim there is a “digital disconnect” between how they use the internet at home and those methods employed by their instructors in the classroom.

“These students said over and over that their schools and teachers have not yet recognized—much less responded to—the fundamental shift occurring in the students they serve and in the learning communities they are charged with fostering,” the study said.

Students gave several reasons they thought school internet use was generally less effective than home use.

According to the study, administration plays a key role in establishing a tone for internet use throughout the entire school building. Some students report being encouraged to use the internet through special classes teaching everything from basic computer-speak to eCommerce, but other students say they find few ways to polish their computer literacy in school.

“Some of the less internet-savvy schools our students described offer fewer opportunities for students and teachers to go online during the school day, are more likely to have teachers with weak technology skills, and are generally less inventive in their internet use,” the study said.

Of course, the emphasis placed on internet use by the administration is reflected in the instructional choices of teachers.

“While in school, it is teachers who manage the use of the internet by students. They choose whether to make assignments that require the use of the internet by their students, allow the use of the internet, or even forbid its use,” the study said.

These decisions, however, aren’t all cut and dried, researchers found. Teachers must take into consideration whether students will have to share computers and whether they will need to reserve a lab during class time, the study said. Then, teachers must consider whether the proposed lesson adheres to the administration’s acceptable-use policy. Most importantly, teachers must evaluate their own technology skills and decide whether they are capable of teaching the lesson to its full effect.

What’s more, students told researchers that just because teachers are using the internet doesn’t necessarily mean the exercises are particularly innovative or exciting for kids.

“The way that students use the internet for school is largely driven by the kinds of activities and assignments that teachers create,” the study said.

According to researchers, students believe the quality of online learning could be vastly improved if educators sought to incorporate more activities that relate daily life to what is learned inside of classroom walls.

“Some really interesting ways that we use the internet in school is for fun stuff like scavenger hunts, which have been done on the Olympics, poets, and famous figures like Abraham Lincoln. We have also made web pages in business class, which were centered around … what our interests are and what we are like in character,” said one middle school boy.

But improving internet instruction requires more than sound lesson plans, the study said. Even students recognize there are some real barriers to achieving a better quality of online learning both in and out of school.

Time is one issue, the study said. Students who move from place to place and class to class throughout the course of a six-hour school day have little time to boot up and log on to internet-connected computers at each station.

Though several school districts have made commitments to improving internet access, still others lack the infrastructure and high-speed technology necessary to make internet-based lessons a viable alternative to traditional classroom instruction, the study said.

And even in the most technology-rich schools, there are still other barriers to topple.

“Within a school, access to the internet is largely controlled by teachers—teachers whom students describe as being motivated primarily by fear of what might happen if students use the internet inappropriately,” the study said.

This fear has contributed to a general reluctance among the teaching community, which has only been heightened by the imposition of federally mandated web filters in schools, Rainie said.

Students, too, expressed frustration with the existence of web filters and other usage restrictions in schools, Rainie said. Many of them complained that web filters blocked relevant content, while still others argued that, having grown up on the internet, they thought themselves mature enough to deal with inappropriate situations should they arise during school use.

“Kids are much more calm about the bad stuff online, because they figure they can deal with it,” Rainie said. According to him, teachers and parents are the ones intimidated by inappropriate content. Students, he said, were more concerned about their inability to reach critical information quickly.

Because not every student has internet access at home, the vast majority of students say their teachers don’t assign homework that requires use of the web. But tech-savvy students say they want better coordination between classroom activities and their out-of-school educational use of the internet. This could be the key to leveraging the internet’s instructional power, they argue.

Although some teachers are afraid of alienating kids who lack internet connections from home, researchers say there are a number of outlets for disadvantaged children to work online outside of school, including libraries and boys’ and girls’ clubs.

“Schools are lowering the bar instead of changing the emphasis and bringing everyone to a higher level and saying, ‘Let’s take advantage of this stuff,'” Rainie said. Among students’ other suggestions: Schools must continue to improve on the quality of the connections available in school, and educators should not shy away from online learning for fear of the risks associated with it.

The study also points out that more professional development is needed to help unlock the internet’s potential in education.

“Students are uniformly more interested in—and saw more value in—doing schoolwork that challenged and excited them than in simply using the internet for its own sake,” the study said.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who need technology help, though, the study said. Recognizing the advantages they enjoy compared to those who don’t have easy internet access outside of school, many online students also suggested the need for more programs to teach keyboarding and computer literacy in school. The hope is that in-school instruction will help students who have less exposure outside of school draw even with their more tech-savvy cohorts, Rainie said.

Other concerns included a call for fewer restrictions of online use in school and a need to repair the “digital divide,” which students said becomes obvious during classroom computer time.

Educators contacted by eSchool News said it’s important to listen to what students have to say about their instruction.

“Students perceive their school environment in a personal way that teachers and administrators can’t always appreciate,” said Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas.

Added Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania, “We must respond to students and their desire to be challenged and to have meaningful learning experiences. Rote learning cannot continue to dominate.”


Pew Internet and American Life Project

American Institutes for Research


The Infinity Project is nationally recognized partnership between leading research universities, industry, government, and K-12 educators to help school districts incorporate modern engineering and technology in their high school curricula. Project officials are now accepting applications from schools interested in offering our engineering curriculum during the 2003-04 school year. This program is sponsored by the Southern Methodist University School of Engineering and Texas Instruments. The grants can be used to purchase textbooks for the program, acquire the needed technology, or provide professional development for teachers. Each grant covers approximately half the cost of implementing the Infinity Project’s engineering curriculum. The program will make grants to 80 qualifying schools. Grant applications may be downloaded from the web site below.


This program is funded by the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds and is designed to support innovative ideas in education leadership from a wide range of communities, especially those in low-income neighborhoods. Eligible projects include a school developing the technology to support data-driven instructional decision-making. Awards range from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on the size of the submitted budget and recipients will have up to two years to implement their leadership idea. Awards will be made on a monthly basis through December 2002 and every effort will be made to notify candidates of the status of their applications within six weeks of the time they submit it.


Microsoft investigates possible security flaw in Internet Explorer

Microsoft Corp. is investigating claims that its popular Internet Explorer software has a loophole that lets attackers pose as legitimate web site operators, potentially giving them access to school computer users’ names, passwords, and credit card numbers.

Although Microsoft said it’s too soon to judge the severity of the problem—or even whether the flaw exists—some programmers and ed-tech experts said it could threaten the security of everything from online banking to web-based commerce.

The issue becomes increasingly critical for schools as information technology (IT) directors and business officials implement policies that allow educators to place expensive orders for everything from food to new computers online.

“If indeed [the loophole] is real, the potential security flaw in Internet Explorer could be a significant worry for schools,” said Bob Moore executive director of IT services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas. “Many schools are just getting started with eCommerce applications, and this kind of problem could make schools more wary than ever.”

Software experts agree. The problem is “fairly serious,” said Elias Levy, a member of software security company Symantec Corp.’s security response team, though he added that the complexity involved makes the probability of widespread attacks unlikely.

Attackers taking advantage of the loophole could trick computer users into thinking they are visiting legitimate web sites and could convince them to divulge personal information.

Catherine Brooker, a spokeswoman for Microsoft, said the company investigates all potential security risks thoroughly, and its Security Response Center would see to it that all necessary corrections are made to alleviate possible dangers.

“Customer security is our No. 1 concern,” she said. “We’ll do whatever is right for the customer.”

Mike Benham, a San Francisco programmer who discovered the problem, posted his findings Aug. 5 on a popular security-alert web site.

Benham said Internet Explorer versions 5.0, 5.5, and 6.0 have loopholes in handling web sites’ digital certificates, such as those from VeriSign Inc., which verify web sites as being legitimate and also include unique code for encrypting information.

Essentially, any web site operator with a valid certificate could pretend to be any other web site operator.

Theoretically, he said, attackers could successfully hijack computer users—such as over a school’s internal network—as they went to eCommerce web sites and intercept their information, or they could send hijacked users to dummy web sites and get them to give personal information.

Other web browsers, such as Netscape and Mozilla, aren’t vulnerable to the problem, Benham said.

Microsoft is still investigating and is unsure even whether to call it a vulnerability, said Scott Culp, manager of Microsoft’s Security Response Center.

The possible flaw comes as Microsoft has launched a high-profile effort, called its Trustworthy Computing initiative, to resolve security concerns. But problems remain: The company has issued 41 security bulletins with patches so far this year.

Microsoft criticized Benham for not contacting it first before posting the problem on the internet. Benham said he did not directly notify Microsoft because he was frustrated by the company’s response to other security researchers in the past.

Microsoft maintains it is difficult to wage an attack as Benham outlined, although Levy and another security expert, Bruce Schneier at Counterpane Internet Security, said it is possible.

“Investigating a security vulnerability sometimes takes a little bit longer than people may expect, because it’s important that we be absolutely right about the answer we provide,” Culp said. He added that Microsoft has not contacted Benham because the company has sufficient information and doubts whether he is committed to helping solve the problem.

eCommerce companies have since contacted Microsoft about their concerns, Culp said.

VeriSign, one of the biggest providers of digital certificates, said it learned of the problem on Aug. 9 and contacted Microsoft, said Ben Golub, senior vice president of trust and payment services.

He said the two companies are working together to resolve the problem, and they don’t know of any real cases yet where someone has successfully spoofed a web site or gained information.


Microsoft Corp.

Blue Valley School District

Symantec Corp.

VeriSign Inc.


The purpose of the State Program Improvement Grant program is to assist State educational agencies and their partners referred to in section 652(b) of IDEA with reforming and improving their systems for providing educational, early intervention, and transitional services, including their systems for professional development, technical assistance, and dissemination of knowledge about best practices, to improve results for children with disabilities.

For more information:


Ohio sees surge of interest in online charter schools

With thousands of students now enrolled in four online charter schools in Ohio, state officials say there is a “huge spike” this year in the number of Ohio districts that have expressed interest in starting their own digital charter schools.

At least 192 organizations have told the state of their interest in applying for startup funds for charter schools, most of them school districts, according to state Department of Education records.

At least 63 of these are districts proposing a “digital academy,” such as the possible Danville Digital Academy in central Ohio, the records show.

And at least 39 of these districts have signed contracts with Marion, Ohio-based Tri-Rivers Educational Computer Association (TRECA) Digital Academy to help develop their own online schools, said TRECA executive director Michael Carder.

Such interest “is a huge spike, and it’s a drastic departure from our experience in the past,” said Steve Burigana, executive director of the department’s Office of Community Schools.

Ohio’s charter school law allows local districts to operate charter schools, but only a handful have taken advantage of the law. Most of the state’s charter schools are operated by private groups or companies.

Charter schools are privately run, publicly funded schools free from some state regulations. More than 120 charter schools are expected to be open this fall in Ohio, enrolling about 30,000 students and receiving about $166 million in state funding.

Online charter schools typically provide computers for students to use at home, a full grade-by-grade curriculum, and instruction supervised by certified teachers.

Schools are starting to see that online education can be done successfully and want to do it themselves, Burigana said.

“In some cases they’re looking at this and saying, ‘Maybe it’s not a bad idea. We have a segment of our student population that can’t be served by traditional methods, and this may be an opportunity to serve our students through a more nontraditional approach.'”

Burigana said it’s unclear how many of the schools ultimately will open their own charter schools.

“There’s only so many students and their parents who would choose to pursue this option,” he said. “I’m not entirely convinced that the saturation point is that far away.”

The four online schools scheduled to open this fall will enroll at least 4,100 students, according to state records, but that figure is expected to climb.

The Fairfield-Union school board is ready to approve a contract of about $50,000 with TRECA to help develop the Fairfield-Union Digital Academy, superintendent Clark Davis said.

The school district southeast of Columbus wants to stop students from enrolling in other online schools and make sure they are getting a good education if they choose the digital route, he said.

“I think privateers are trying to jump into this market and, frankly, I don’t have a lot of confidence that many of the privateers can offer services as well as those of us in public education,” Davis said.

Carder said TRECA’s goal is to help districts develop online education courses, either in the form of a charter school or as part of the district’s own offerings.

He agreed that the market for full-time students taking online courses from home may be limited. But the future of education may be students taking a mix of traditional and online courses, and that market is unlimited, he said.

“The bulk of kids out there are kids who want to be in both worlds, the student taking four traditional courses and two online classes,” Carder said. “That’s a huge, huge group of people out there, and nobody is working with that group of students right now.”

The four Ohio-based online charter schools that will be open this coming school year are TRECA, the Columbus-based Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, Toledo-based Alternative Education Academy, and the Virtual Community School of Ohio.

Only one—the Virtual Community School of Ohio in Reynoldsburg, a suburb of Columbus—is chartered by a school district.

A fifth school, the Ohio Virtual School, part of a chain of online schools operated by former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett, also is expected to open this fall.


Ohio Department of Education

TRECA Digital Academy


Research groups tapped to identify ‘what works’ in education

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has selected a group of research organizations to build and maintain an $18.5 million database, called the What Works Clearinghouse, that will help education decision-makers identify high-quality research on various programs, practices, and products used in teaching.

The five-year contract was awarded to the Campbell Collaboration of Philadelphia and the American Institutes for Research of Washington, D.C., along with their subcontractors, Aspen Systems of Rockville, Md., Caliber Associates of Fairfax, Va., and the Education Quality Institute of Washington, D.C.

The two principal parties have established a joint venture to develop and maintain the clearinghouse. The partnership brings together nationally recognized leaders in the field of education research.

The clearinghouse aims to help fulfill a requirement of the new education reform law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), that asks educators to use only proven strategies based on sound, scientific research.

“There’s a lot of pressure through the U.S. Department of Education, and there’s a lot of public interest in identifying programs that actually do what they claim to do,” said Rebecca Herman, project director for the clearinghouse and principal research analyst at the American Institutes for Research.

The clearinghouse will contain several searchable online databases, including a registry of programs, products, and practices that claim to improve student achievement; a registry of research that backs up those claims; a registry of effective assessment tools; and a list of researchers that educators can contact if they have a program they need evaluated.

The term “high-quality research” has not yet been defined. Project leaders say they are working to identify the characteristics of high-quality research to create a standard or benchmark against which each piece of research contained in the clearinghouse will be measured.

“The idea is to help people sort out good evidence from evidence that isn’t really that strong,” Herman said.

Together, these five organizations will write critical reviews of existing education research on various topics—such as the impact of homogenous grouping in the third grade. The project leaders plan to solicit topic nominations from educators, Herman said.

For each piece of research, the clearinghouse will provide a summary, access to the complete document where possible, and a review that identifies the research’s strengths and weaknesses.

“It’s a matter of linking up the question that decision makers have with the best research out there,” said Marty Orland, principal program officer and special assistant to ED’s assistant for research and improvement.

In addition to helping educators find research to back up various education practices, Orland said, another important function of the web site is that it will provide educators with a list of qualified and committed researchers they can contact to initiate a research study of projects happening in their school or district.

“This is ideal for someone who has something they think is high quality, but they don’t know who to go to to evaluate it,” Orland said.

The clearinghouse will be accessible through ED’s web site, but people without internet access can contact the clearinghouse, request research on a particular topic, and have it mailed to them.

Educators contacted by eSchool News said the clearinghouse is a much-needed service, especially considering the demands of NCLB.

“I think the clearinghouse will be very helpful, since the technology grants are mandating that we replicate successful research models in our grant-writing for the … funds,” said Kathy Schrock, administrator for technology at the Nauset Public Schools in Massachusetts.

To help educators in her district, Schrock created a small web page that links to major technology research reports, such as the Milken Family Foundation’s report “The Impact of Education Technology on Student Achievement: What the Most Current Research Has to Say.”

Susan Smith, district technology coordinator for Daviess County Public Schools in Kentucky, said her district’s teachers have been incorporating the latest brain research into their teaching strategies, but because the field is so new, the impact of these new teaching strategies on student achievement hasn’t been tested yet.

“We need to identify proven strategies and verify the validity of the research. With budgets decreasing yearly and the testing stakes so high, we cannot afford to subject our children to a strategy that won’t improve their capacity to learn,” Smith said.

Although the clearinghouse is funded by the government and hosted on a government web page, Orland insisted that the reviews of the research will be independent.

“It is important that the government is not seen and perceived as making these judgments,” Orland said. “The intent and the safeguard of this [initiative] is to ensure against the politicism of this process.”


U.S. Department of Education

What Works Clearinghouse

Campbell Collaboration

American Institutes for Research

Nauset Public Schools: Technology Research Overview


Real-life lessons register at student-run retail store

It’s a Monday afternoon—a school day—and The Parks at Arlington mall in Texas is cluttered with teenagers. But these kids aren’t pumping quarters into arcade games, and they aren’t playing hooky; they are attending classes.

The select group of high school students has come to participate in a hands-on learning initiative that teaches kids the ins and outs of retail management by employing them to market and operate The School Zone, a wildly colorful store where parents, students, and diehard fans can flock to purchase t-shirts, sweatshirts, pennants, and pins adorned with their favorite high school mascots.

The project is part of the Arlington Independent School District’s Class in the Parks program, a marketing and business-education initiative that combines classroom instruction with the inimitable benefit of on-the-job experience.

According to Craig Wright, the district’s director of career and technology education programs, the project was conceived as way to prepare aspiring entrepreneurs for possible careers in retail management.

“With this store, students get to see the real books and workings of a business model,” Wright said. “Our main goal to is to have students coming out of this program ready for all aspects of the retail profession.”

The 800 square-foot retail store is adjoined to a 2,000 square-foot distance learning classroom complete with 30 wireless laptop computers, Wright said. This year, more than 130 students will take part in the program, which offers courses such as Accounting I and II, Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Retailing, and eCommerce. The store, which opened Aug. 1, is only the second store in the nation to be owned and operated by a school district, Wright said.

In class, students use their laptops to do research, develop advertising, edit photos, perform statistical cost analyses, and take tests. “Technology is an everyday part of the curriculum. We use the internet extensively,” said Deborah Blackner, a teacher/coordinator at The School Zone.

According to Blackner, the project holds four classes per school day, and 24 students attend each class.

But it’s what goes on outside the classroom that brings the project’s ingenuity to light, she said. Students are encouraged to use their newly acquired business savvy to help improve the store’s bottom line and—eventually—to make a profit.

“The store is a real-world setting for us to apply what we are teaching,” Blackner said. “We envision it as a learning laboratory to apply what we learn in the classroom.”

The School Zone keeps to the mall’s normal business hours and operates under the supervision of one manager, two assistant managers, and between 4 and 6 student employees, Wright said.

Students employed at the store are allowed to work no more than 20 hours per week and are paid $7 an hour. Originally, those wages were higher, but in the business world, tough economic times mean tough cuts, Wright said.

Not every student gets the opportunity to work in the store as a paid employee, but each has the benefit of contributing in some way to its daily business functions.

For instance, students who participate in the eCommerce class will be asked to build an online component to the store, Wright said. The kids will be in charge of everything from initial research and development to the design and upkeep of the site itself. “We want kids to really feel they have a sense of ownership here,” he said.

The eCommerce class was conceived to show how businesses can expand revenue streams beyond the constraints of a single location retail store, Wright said. One idea is to have a kiosk on location where customers, unable to find their favorite products on the shelves, can order them from an in-house computer.

Another plan is to operate satellite locations around the mall where live video shots of patrons shopping in The School Zone will be broadcast to generate excitement, increase awareness, and drive traffic to the store.

Students also will participate by putting together marketing gimmicks, developing advertisements, doing cost analyses, and conducting quarterly reviews to improve upon the overall business model, Wright said.

To be considered for the program, students must first apply through their guidance counselors. Once the counselors have reviewed the students’ academic records, attendance, commitment, and sincerity of interest in the retail program, they are allowed to register for on-site classes and are eligible to work in the store, Wright said.

There is some concern, however, that students who become too committed to The School Zone project might fall behind in other studies.

To make sure kids maintain a sense of academic balance, Wright said, teacher/coordinators at The School Zone are encouraged to monitor the activities and study habits of participating students in traditional classes as well. Those students who are falling behind could be asked to leave the program, Wright said.

But that’s a consequence most students won’t ever have to face, Blackner said. She believes kids want to receive recognition for the hard work and dedication they have brought to the store. To achieve that notoriety, they must enter competitions such as those held by the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA), a national association for marketing, management, and entrepreneurship education. And there’s a catch: Students can’t enter the competition unless they have passing grades in all of their classes, she said.

“I think it’s more of a benefit than a detriment,” Blackner said. “The kids want to go to these competitions. They know they have to keep their grades up.”

As is the case with any retail business, proprietors of The School Zone do expect the store to make a profit, eventually. But, in the end, if sacrifices are made at the expense of learning, Blackner says, so be it.

“We just hope to open a lot of eyes and to help students see the many career options that are available to them,” she said. “The goal of the store is not profit, it’s education.”


Arlington Independent School District

Distributive Education Clubs of America