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Debate About Impact of Ed Tech on Test Scores Fueled by Study

By Jason Kazi — September 13, 2016 5 min read
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The latest attempt by researchers to determine the impact of educational technology investments on student achievement suggests that federal E-rate program subsidies that schools receive are unlikely to improve student test scores.

This new study could fuel debates about the link between technology investments and student achievement. But several ed-tech experts said the premise of the study is largely misguided and some of the methodology is flawed.

The research—conducted by scholars at Clemson University’s Department of Economics and the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy—shows no direct correlation between the use of annual E-rate subsidies and SAT scores in North Carolina’s public schools.

In North Carolina, composite SAT test scores fell as E-rate funding increased. That led the researchers to suggest that districts aren’t getting the return on investment that they should from spending thousands of dollars on added technology in their classrooms.

“The argument that was made to increase the [E-rate] funding up to $4 billion per year was that there was a positive outcome,” said Thomas Hazlett, a professor of economics at Clemson and one of the study’s authors. “We need to show increased test scores to be able to support the next $4 billion of investments.”

But suggesting that the districts are not getting a valuable return on investment based solely on SAT scores is a conclusion full of problems, several experts said.

To begin with, both K-12 leaders and the Federal Communications Commission agree that the intended purpose of the E-rate program from the very beginning has always been to provide a level playing field for all school districts in terms of access to technology, not as a direct means to increase test scores. Plus, they say it is problematic to suggest that E-rate funding would have a direct link to test scores, because there are so many other factors that influence academic performance.

Mixed Picture

The findings show that as E-rate funding rose in North Carolina during the 2009-2013 period, average mathematics SAT test scores actually dropped from 493 to 481. The average written SAT test score also dropped from 454 in 2009 to 448 in 2013. However, average critical reading SAT test scores saw a slight increase.

While the study claims to “adjust for demographic differences,” it does not clearly outline which factors are being used to distinguish a wealthy school district from a poorer school district.

Academic Return From the E-rate?

A new study conducted by researchers at Clemson and Georgetown universities attempts to examine the link between the E-rate program and student achievement.

The study:

  • COMPARES rising E-rate investments with SAT scores for students across North Carolina between 1999 and 2013;
  • EXAMINES the performance of students in Mooresville, N.C., a district with an international reputation for its extensive use of digital learning;
  • BASES its conclusions on the performance of students in 374 high schools in 119 districts;
  • CONCLUDES that, in most cases, the correlation between E-rate funding and SAT scores is negative;
  • SUGGESTS that policymakers need to take a harder look at the return on investment from the E-rate program.

Source: Clemson University, Georgetown University

The study also specifically examined the Mooresville County schools, a district with an international reputation for its extensive use of educational technology. The results from Mooresville present a mixed picture.

They show that as E-rate funding rose in North Carolina during the 2009-2013 period, average mathematics SAT test scores for the district dropped to a low of 499 in 2012 before returning to 520 in 2013. The average written SAT test scores in Mooresville dropped to a low of 457 in 2011 before returning to 482 in 2013. Additionally, the average critical reading SAT test scores dropped to a low of 478 in 2011 before returning to 500 in 2013.

“The article attempts to correlate SAT performance with federal E-rate program spending,” said Brendan Desetti, the director of education policy at The Software & Information Industry Association. “However, only about half of all high school students take the SAT and the majority of test takers are not low-income students. The E-rate program, on the other hand, provides subsidies for broadband connectivity to schools and libraries based on the number of low-income individuals served. Higher-income students, those more likely to participate in the SAT, are also shown to be more likely to have access to high-speed internet and other technology outside of the classroom.”

Other studies cloud the picture about the impact of technology investments on student achievement. For instance, a 2015 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that ed-tech investments made in 31 countries did not lead to improved student achievement. However, a Michigan State University meta-analysis released in 2016 showed a link between improved test scores and access to computers.

EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit working to bring internet to every classroom in the United States to enhance digital learning opportunities, has been a big advocate for E-rate funding across the country.

“The most important thing with the E-rate program is for it to continue to focus on how we are achieving the goals and to make sure that schools and school districts (the beneficiaries) have the tools that they need to be the most effective purchasers of broadband that they can be,” said Evan Marwell, the founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway. “They can ensure that the taxpayers’ money is used in the best way possible.”

Study ‘Fundamentally Flawed’

The FCC overhauled and modernized the E-rate program in late 2015 by using data to drive its policy changes.

In collaboration with educational nonprofit organizations, the FCC felt the need to move the program away from basic telephone lines to fiber-optic broadband connectivity. The policy changes expanded the options school districts had to build up their Wi-Fi infrastructure.

Most educational experts say today’s classrooms must be both broadband and Wi-Fi-capable to allow teachers and students to use technology in the most effective ways.

According to data gathered by EducationSuperHighway, 5 million public schools had broadband in 2014. That number grew to 27 million public schools in 2015. This increase can largely be attributed to the FCC’s modernization of the E-rate program, according to ed-tech experts. FCC data also caused the agency to make all of its E-rate data pertaining to who’s buying what, from whom, and at what price open to the public. As a result, the cost paid by schools for broadband has been cut in half since 2014, from $22 per megabit to $11 per megabit.

“I think that overall the study [by Clemson and Georgetown] is fundamentally flawed,” said Marwell. “The E-rate program has made a level playing field by providing every student and teacher in the country with equal and efficient access to the Internet. The E-rate program is about access, not achievement. The people who know teaching and learning the best are in the classroom and improving learning for children.”

FCC officials echoed Marwell.

“The Telecommunications Act of 1996 directed the FCC to provide schools and libraries with broadband, which is exactly what the E-rate program is doing,” said Mark Wigfield, deputy director of the office of media relations at the FCC. “While we can’t comment on the study’s analysis of educational outcomes, the demand for E-rate funding from schools and libraries makes it clear that access to broadband is essential to learning today.”

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