Testing is Causing a Shift in Tech Spending
Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, San Antonio Express-News, June 21,
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pressured to keep up with state and federal testing requirements
are spending millions on high-tech systems to track and catalog
their kids at the same time the federal government is cutting
funding for the very same technology.
The result: Instead of buying laptops for students or updating
old hardware, school systems are raiding technology budgets to
pay for data systems that keep track of test scores.
The mammoth systems, which give teachers instant access to
student information and pinpoint weak academic areas, are fast
becoming part of the education landscape nationwide.
In January, the U.S. Department of Education released the
National Education Technology Plan — a requirement of President
Bush's education reform law, No Child Left Behind. The plan's
recommendations include using data systems to boost performance.
But the federal government isn't likely to help school districts
pay for the expensive systems. Just three weeks after the
technology plan was unveiled, the Bush administration proposed
cutting out the $496 million technology grant fund for public
Critics say spending millions on systems that essentially are
designed to boost standardized test scores and meet state and
federal accountability standards is a waste.
"Put it toward music education, the arts, more science
education, put it toward technology for kids to actually use in
the classroom, by gosh," said Marlene Heringer, parent of a
middle-schooler in the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City School
District. "Don't waste it on the outcome of a standardized
The goal of setting up a colossal, one-stop system for
information on grades, test performance and teacher
qualification is to raise test scores and student achievement
and meet the extensive reporting requirements of No Child Left
To accomplish that, school districts around the country are
turning to private technology and information management
companies to help them set up Web-based data systems to track
students and teachers and help identify weaknesses.
The idea is that by extensively tracking students' past
performance and making that information available to teachers in
a timely manner, teachers can individualize instruction to give
kids a better chance of passing standardized tests.
When the school year begins in August, Northside School District
teachers will be able to find out almost anything they need to
know about their new students before the kids even walk in the
With a computer keystroke, educators will have access to an
academic biography of their students — detailed test scores,
report card information, attendance history — that as recently
as last year took weeks to compile.
"The goal is to hopefully make the teachers' jobs easier," said
Linda Mora, Northside's assistant superintendent for curriculum
Mora said the system will help do more than simply raise test
scores. She expects to see an increase in overall student
achievement. "Teachers will know who their students are and
where they are academically when the doors open on Aug. 22."
Northside is contracting with a company called SchoolNet to set
up its data management system. The company also serves Judson
School District and Austin- and Corpus Christi-area districts.
Northside's cost to set up the system and maintain it for five
years: $2.2 million.
"When you get right down to it, you're talking about a fraction
of the toilet paper budget," SchoolNet CEO Jonathan Harber said.
"Across the country, schools spend almost $7,000 per student per
year. We're talking about spending $5 per student, $10 per
student (for a data management system.)"
In Northside, district officials are using money from a 2004
bond to pay for the computer system. Kelly Smith, the district's
assistant superintendent for technology services, said money
that pays for student computers and software wasn't affected by
But most school districts do use money from technology budgets
to pay for the systems.
In its annual national study on technology use in schools, the
trade magazine Education Week found 15 states, including Texas,
are focusing more technology funding on data management and
collection as a direct result of No Child Left Behind
"Our sense this year is there were major changes taking place in
the world of technology spending and our report found that was
indeed the case," said Kevin Bushweller, a project editor for
"The biggest change is the shifting emphasis in spending to data
management systems and away from getting better instructional
technology into classrooms. Underlying the trend is a major
philosophical shift in the White House concerning the role of
technology in schools."
Dan Troxell, superintendent of Kerrville School District, has no
problem justifying spending $22,500 for a tracking system that
he believes will reap huge benefits for the 4,800 kids in his
Kerrville's system is based on predicting how students should
perform on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and
determining if students truly made progress.
Because the district is small — statistically such predictions
can only be made with a large data set — Troxell recruited nine
other school districts, including Alamo Heights, Pleasanton and
South San Antonio, to form a consortium and pool their test
scores. Each district pays roughly $1,500 per school for the
The districts send their information to San Antonio-based
psychologist and statistician David Ramirez, who uses what he
calls the INOVA process to determine how much progress a student
is making from year to year and pinpoint weak areas for
The INOVA system places each student in one of five color
categories: red students are predicted to fail the test; yellows
are likely to fail; gray students have a 50-50 chance of
passing; blue students are likely to pass; and greens will
probably do well and, with help, have the potential to ace the
Troxell said the color-coding system, which also provides a list
of each student's strengths and weaknesses and a list of
academic interventions and recommended teaching methods, is a
powerful tool that helps teachers individualize instruction for
"Usually what you see is data related to how to score well on a
test, but not data on individual performance," he said. "You can
have children that passed the test that didn't actually grow
from year to year, or you can have children that had great
growth but failed the test because they didn't meet the
standard. We want every child to meet their full potential."
Troxell believes in accountability and the goals of No Child
Left Behind, but he said the federal government should be doing
its share to fund accountability measures.
"These systems cost money. Testing kids costs millions of
dollars, then analyzing and putting intervention programs in
place is extremely expensive, but if you look at the funding
it's not there," Troxell said.
Judson School District has been using a data management system
to boost test scores for three years, which makes it a veteran
customer in the new booming business. The district spent
$383,000 for a five-year contract with SchoolNet.
Assistant Superintendent Charlie Neumeyer pulled from several
budgets, including individual schools' technology accounts that
cover the cost of new computers and software for classrooms, to
pay for the service.
"It's a balancing act, but right now, given the state of
education, that data is valuable," Neumeyer said. "Knowing every
piece of information you can about each student has become
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