Eighth-graders’ scores on Maine’s most recent annual achievement test are refueling the debate over that state’s groundbreaking effort to give laptop computers to students.

Middle-school students who used laptops for two years performed about the same on a standardized test as students in the past who did not have access to computers, the results indicate–though laptop-equipped students did show gains in writing.

Critics of the state’s laptop initiative say the scores are the first real evidence the program, which has cost the state more than $15 million so far, is an expensive fad. Proponents say it’s too early to expect dramatic changes in test scores.

The laptops had been in use for only three semesters–and were new to eighth-grade teachers–when the tests were taken.

Rep. Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, co-chairman of the state Legislature’s education committee, said his own classroom observations convinced him that laptops are an effective teaching tool, especially for struggling students. He also said teachers are still learning how to integrate the new technology.

“I am surprised we did not see a larger leap. But we are still on the leading edges of that learning curve,” he said.

Scores for reading, writing, math, and science in the Maine Educational Assessment were essentially unchanged among eighth-grade students in the past school year, compared with the scores of eighth-graders the previous two years.

But there was a measurable improvement in writing scores among students who took the online version of the test at 60 schools, said Patrick Phillips, deputy education commissioner in Augusta.

Next year, the state education department will take a closer look at the differences between test results of students who take the test online and those who take the test with pencil and paper, he said.

Maine has just completed the second year of a four-year, $37.2 million contract that provides laptops to all 34,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students and to 3,000 middle school teachers.

Previous research on the laptops was based on observation and surveys. The assessment scores are the first concrete data showing whether laptops are helping students, said Dugan Slovenski, a Brunswick parent and school board member.

“At the end of the day, if it doesn’t change how much kids know and are able to do, it’s just an expensive program to teach kids how to use a computer,” she said.

Though early evidence of the Maine program’s success has been largely anecdotal, schools in other areas have reported more tangible results. A school laptop program in British Columbia, Canada, for example, was shown to have raised the percentage of students who met the province’s writing standards from 70 percent to 90 percent. (See “Studies validate laptop programs in U.S., Canada.”)

Maine Education Commissioner Sue Gendron is working to expand the state’s laptop program into high schools. This fall, at least 33 school districts will pay $300 per student every year for four years to put computers on the laps of ninth-graders.

Links:

Maine Learning Technology Initiative