Help or high-tech hindrance?

August 14, 2007

Anew computerized program being tested in some Baltimore County schools could help keep better track of how students are progressing -- but it also raises a lot of questions. County school officials should move very cautiously and conduct a rigorous cost-benefit analysis before broadly implementing a program that could mean a lot more work for teachers.

The "Articulated Instruction Module" offers a computerized checklist of what individual students have learned and where they might still need to concentrate on building their skills. It aims to go beyond the letter grades on a report card and provide at least a quarterly summary of a student's accomplishments, allowing teachers to give parents a more detailed assessment of what the student has -- or has not -- mastered. A small pilot test toward the end of the last school year brought mixed reviews, with some teachers lamenting the extra work but some parents grateful for a better road map to help their children.

Doing more comprehensive analyses of student skills is, in part, how schools and teachers are fulfilling their obligation to be more accountable under the federal No Child Left Behind law. With reliable data on what a student doesn't know, a teacher and parents can work on targeted and effective interventions. Such assessments can be especially helpful with underachieving students, and students who have moved in and out of several schools.

But Baltimore County school officials must keep in mind that the object is not to impose an extra layer of computer work, but to make student assessments part of a comprehensive effort to create a more in-depth report card, make needed curriculum changes and come up with short- and long-range plans to help students master critical skills.

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