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Computer System Gets Partial Credit for Increases in Test Scores

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A new computer system is partly responsible for dramatic increases in student-test scores in Montgomery County, Md., school officials there suggest.

Releasing the results of the statewide functional reading and mathematics tests last month, officials in the affluent Washington suburb reported that 9th graders passed the test at a record-high rate. Moreover, black and Hispanic students made significant gains, district administrators noted.

These increases came about, officials said, in part because of the new $18,000-per-school computer system that enables principals and teachers to identify students' strengths and weaknesses and target instruction.

"We didn't push a button and up came the formula for success,'' said Brian J. Porter, a spokesman for the district. "It is a means to an end, rather than the end.''

Nevertheless, he said, "used properly, it is a wonderful way to organize student data and provide access in an efficient and effective manner.''

The system, known as the School-Based Instructional Monitoring System, or SIMS, provides individual schools almost instant access to volumes of data on each student's performance that once took days to plow through.

With a few strokes on a keyboard, advocates point out, principals and teachers can monitor individual students' performance or detect patterns, and adjust classroom instruction or assignments if warranted.

But principals who have used the system deny suggestions that the practice encourages teachers to "teach to the test'' at the expense of instruction on topics not covered by the statewide exams.

"SIMS helped us not fall into that trap,'' said Michael Glascoe, the principal of Albert Einstein High School. "When we had not enough information, we would work with pull-out programs or go through the motions of covering the items on the test in daily math classes.''

"In no way did it take away from instruction,'' he said. "That didn't happen.''

Expanding Countywide

Katheryn W. Gemberling, who is currently a deputy superintendent of schools for the district, developed the SIMS system in 1984. Then a junior-high-school principal, Ms. Gemberling compiled information on incoming 7th graders to improve placement.

"Instead of getting numbers and figures, I was getting real kids,'' Ms. Gemberling said. "When you look at a piece of information, knowing the student to whom it is attached, it gives you insight nobody else has.''

In 1990, Ms. Gemberling proposed expanding the system countywide, and principals in 23 elementary and secondary schools agreed to serve as pilot sites. Another 24 schools were added this year.

The district plans to expand it to all schools by 1995, Ms. Gemberling said, at a cost of $850,000 per year.

Mr. Porter conceded that the cost is high, particularly at a time when Montgomery County and other Maryland districts are struggling with tight budgets and state-aid cuts. But he noted that the total price includes the cost of hardware--three terminals in each elementary school and four in each high school--software, and staff training.

Mr. Porter also pointed out that the funds are provided in the district's capital-improvement budget, rather than its operating budget, and have not yet been threatened with budget cuts.

New Analyses of Data

The system, which operates on a standard Apple Macintosh computer, is essentially a data base of test scores, grades, student-biographical information, and other records.

While the computers are linked to a mainframe in the district's central office, which provides much of the information, schools can themselves add to the data base with their own data.

"We test kids every week,'' said Ben Marlin, the principal of Gaithersburg High School. "Each week, we get new sets of numbers.''

But SIMS, Mr. Marlin said, substantially reduces the amount of time it takes teachers and administrators to analyze such data.

Mr. Glascoe of Einstein High School added that the system can also make possible new analyses of student information.

He noted, for example, that schools in the past would receive printouts that listed students whose grade-point averages had dropped from one marking period to another. But the lists would be organized according to the size of the drop, not by grade, he said.

"If we wanted to find the 9th graders, we'd have to cut and paste,'' Mr. Glascoe said. "With SIMS, we can find all the 9th graders who dropped 2 points.''

In addition to helping improve school programs, added Roseanne Armes, the principal of Viers Mill Elementary School, the SIMS system can also demonstrate to teachers the usefulness of computers.

"I didn't use a computer until we were in the program,'' she said. "Now I use it every day.''

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