When Roel Gonzalez stepped into the shoes of superintendent of a large school district in Texas nearly seven months ago, it didn't take him long to see that handheld computers from palmOne, Inc. not only motivate students, they also help prepare them for the demanding Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills test administered by the state annually.
Now, with the addition of 1,000 Zire 71 and Tungsten E handhelds from palmOne, the Rio Grande City Consolidated Independent School District at Fort Ringgold has more than 2,700 handheld computers in second through fifth grades. And if Gonzalez has his way, all 10,000 students in the district will be using handheld computers within the next two years. Plans also are under way to provide Tungsten C wireless handhelds to administrators in the central district office and to bring wireless access technology to all 12 district campuses.
"We now consider handhelds a necessity," says Gonzalez. "Students love using them, educators say they can't do without them, and parents are asking when the first graders will get them. You can't beat them in terms of affordability and application."
Gonzalez has many reasons to be excited about the technology. He credits handhelds with motivating students, saying, "Students are immediately receptive to using handhelds because it's a format that they 'get' -- thanks to handheld gaming and MP3 players, they're already very savvy with electronic devices. The difference is, handhelds empower them.
"From what we have seen, handhelds increase motivation, reinforce writing and improve spelling. With thousands of curriculum and productivity applications available for handhelds, my goal is for handhelds to replace the heavy backpacks students carry today."
In addition, the Zire 71 handheld with its built-in digital camera has become very useful in promoting student success. "We can take pictures of students in recognition of any type of academic success," he says, "adding momentum to special events and fun to learning."
On a larger scale, the district has implemented a comprehensive assessment using handhelds from palmOne and Tango assessment software from Liberty Solutions, a Texas-based consulting and system integration firm. The software captures data quickly and creates profiles of each student in the school district. Educators populate the profiles with data collected from daily work; homework; assessments taken using handhelds; assignments; homework; and projects in reading, writing, grammar, math, science and social studies. The information helps schools to prepare students to pass the state test, which ultimately helps the district meet the accountability requirements set by the No Child Left Behind act.
"I serve a student body where 87 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, and 50 percent are designated Limited English Proficient," says Gonzalez. "This makes an already demanding state test even more difficult for them. Just before we started the handheld-based assessment program, 30 students had failed the test. We brought the number down to five when the test was administered again, and on the third administration only one student failed to pass the test. Technology helped us to assess these students quickly, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and make appropriate adjustments to the curriculum."
The Tango automated assessment program uses handhelds to collect data, and it provides a way for the district to assess all students at the same grade level, over the same amount of time. Gonzalez says handhelds are a cost-effective way to retrieve student information quickly; the cost of desktop or laptop computers limits the number of kids who can use them simultaneously.
The software correlates to state objectives, monitors tests, helps educators set and track measurable performance goals, and helps improve student achievement by identifying successful teaching methods and developing early intervention strategies. What used to take teachers weeks of manual tabulation can now be done in real time, allowing them to quickly assess students and redirect instruction immediately. Now, student data on the handheld is synchronized with the teacher's desktop computer. The system lets teachers generate independent progress reports or individual educational plans for parents, and utilize state standards to make comparisons as to where students should be academically. Grades go into an electronic grade book. The program all but eliminates the manual grading of papers.
Vilma Garza, principal of General Ricardo Sanchez Elementary School, says the data helps her to be a more productive and efficient administrator because she can easily view all the data on her handheld and organize it by campus, teacher and grade level. "Access to this information helps me identify strengths and weaknesses in teaching strategies and provide help to a teacher without having to wait for grades and report cards. If a parent drops by my office unexpectedly or if I meet a parent at the grocery store, I can immediately access their child's profile from my handheld."
So far, Gonzalez is pleased with the results. "Our kids are doing wonderfully, and we have raw test scores to prove it," he says. "Our assessment program gives us feedback that mirrors the state requirements, and it gives us predictors on how students will do on the state test."
Because they are designed for mobility, handhelds can be used anywhere and at any time; students are not restricted to class time to continue to work on assignments. The assessment program also keeps track of individual students' incomplete assignments and makes them responsible to complete them before the six-week grading period is over.
Together, the handhelds and assessment program also allow the district to collect and analyze data to evaluate its curriculum, provide required data for federal programs and grants, develop staff training, ensure that teachers address the state-required expectations, and monitor the implementation of instruction.
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