Study looks at test scores, computers

08/07/2007
By From the Patriot Ledger

By L.E. CAMPENELLA

MILTON - Video games, chat rooms, instant messaging and downloading music may be hazardous to children's MCAS scores.

So says a new study by professors at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and Boston College.

In contrast, writing term papers from rough draft to final copy with a computer in a classroom setting are associated with higher results.

Milton resident and UMass assistant professor Laura O'Dwyer, 34, the lead author of the study, said that while more exploration is needed and the overall study of computer use and its effect on standardized tests has underlying shortcomings, it is clear the results show computers in the classroom equal better English scores on the MCAS exam.

"People make the argument that kids don't need computers in the classroom because they are using them at home," O'Dwyer said. "But if technology is used effectively at school it tends to increase academic scores."

During the last 20 years, state and federal agencies have spent $13 billion to bring computer technology into the classroom, and now the public, educators and government officials on all levels want to know if that money has been well-spent.

The study is part of a growing body of research that compares computer use to student performance on standardized tests. In the past, research showed increase student achievement but not based on written exams.

It is the first to use advanced statistical techniques to measure the relationship between computer use and student achievement on standardized tests.

The UMass-Boston College study, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, analyzed test performance and computer use of 986 fourth-graders in 55 classrooms from nine Massachusetts school districts.

The researchers did not meet the students and do not know what districts they come from, O'Dwyer said.

Of the nine districts, only two were at or below the state average for English in the MCAS.

The study, "Examining the Relationship Between Home and School Computer Use and Students' English/Language Arts Test Scores," had three main findings:

Student scores increased when students used technology from start to finish in the writing process. Recreational and academic use of computers at home had a negative impact. Creating presentations with software programs like PowerPoint or Hyperstudio had a negative impact or no impact on achievement.

"What it shows is technology does have a place in school," O'Dwyer said.

One of the primary findings of the study, O'Dwyer said, is strong evidence that critics of computers in the classroom may need to take another look because computer use at home is far different from the work students perform at school.

"Technology is another tool," O'Dwyer said. "It's a tool for learning the same way a pen is, but you may have a pen, but that does not mean you will use it to write."

The reasons for the results are myriad and need further study, but O'Dwyer suggested that while playing video games, downloading music and designing presentations are creative, the skills tend not to translate into academic achievement.

"There's creativity but you don't create a fleshed-out argument," O'Dwyer said.

L.E. Campenella can be reached at lcampenella@ledger.com