WILLIAMSTOWN. Mass. — The Williamstown School Committee on Wednesday discussed the role of technology in education and, specifically, whether it is being overemphasized in the classroom.
The discussion was sparked by Principal Joelle Brookner's report on pupil performance on the 2017 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam.
In addition to laying out the continued success of the school's children on the standardized test, Brookner noted that last spring the school's fourth-graders took the MCAS on computer for the first time and that the fourth- and fifth-graders will do so this year.
The school is phasing in a transition to meet the commonwealth's goal of online testing in Grades 3 through 8 by 2019, Brookner explained. And that transition will be complemented by the district's one-to-one computer initiative. This year, she said, each fourth-grader has access to a Chromebook.
She said that her review of other high-performing elementary schools in the commonwealth shows that "almost all are one-to-one."
"If you have to take a test on a computer in the third grade, you have to have substantial experience before that," Brookner said. "So that's what we're looking to do."
Committee member Joe Johnson questioned whether the education system in general was placing too much importance on technology and standardized tests.
"I'm all about funding our schools … but we're always having to get a technology update to keep up with the testing we have to do," Johnson said. "What a coincidence, there's a new test we have to take, and we have to buy stuff. It seems like the people who sell things are always the ones deciding where education should go.
"I'm all about funding the schools, but I'm still miffed at how little time my own daughter and son spent in the science lab here getting dirty. They spent much more time on keyboards and staring at screens. And we're making them stare at the screens."
Johnson emphasized that his comments were meant to address the national trend in education and not reflect on Williamstown's priorities. And he said there are issues of equity involved in the rush to bring technology into the classroom.
"You look at the list of schools that do so well [on the MCAS], and they're all schools that can afford it," he said, referring to the one-to-one computer initiatives.
Dan Caplinger pointed out the MCAS exams provide valuable feedback for teachers to help determine what approaches work or don't work in the classroom. And the one-to-one initiative is only partly related to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's drive to move the standardized tests online, he said.
"Even if this test may be a catalyst for acquiring technology, we will, to the extent possible, utilize the technology for purposes beyond taking the test," Caplinger said. "Maybe I'm being naive, but that's the silver lining, from my understanding be your concerns with the potential problems of overly emphasizing this testing."
Johnson, a teacher in the Lenox school district, said he did not disagree with Caplinger's points but still believes that schools can go overboard with the use of technology for technology's sake.
"Technology doesn't necessarily make [education] better," Johnson said. "It's a tool. Sometimes, we think it's the tool, but it's a tool. It's starting to weigh too heavily on how we approach education and where we invest."
In general, the committee — which still governs the preK-6 district during the school's transition to the expanded Mount Greylock Regional School District — was happy with the results of the MCAS.
Brookner explained that it was the first year of the state's revised MCAS and that districts were warned not to compare scores to students' performance on what the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is calling the "legacy MCAS." But she nevertheless found that WES pupils were achieving at about the same level that they were on the previous test.
As significantly, she cited a chart that shows WES is, in most grades, scoring at or above the level of schools throughout Berkshire County.
"One thing that's always tough when you start at a high level is how you grow from there," Brookner said. "We were stuck at Level 2 for a long time because of that. That may happen again. We'll do the best we can."
Last year, Williamstown achieved Level 1 status, a reflection of both high achievement and high growth. This year, the first under the new testing regime, schools were not assigned a level, Brookner said.
The WES Committee did get some bad news Wednesday relating to the school's fiscal year 2018 budget, which the five-person committee is responsible for until it disbands at the end of FY18,
Interim Superintendent Kimberley Grady told the committee that the school's grant revenue is not matching expectations. For example, its Title I grant from the federal government fell from about $41,000 in FY17 to $35,000 this year, a drop of about 15 percent. Based on recommendations from the state, the district had budgeted for about a 5 percent drop in the grant, she said.
"Overall, there is a reduction of about $15,000 in grants that we were not anticipating," Grady said. "The state told us to plan for a 5 percent reduction, and this was much greater. Some of the data they use is based on population data that is two years behind."
Grady said the school is working to find more accurate ways to project its grant revenue in the future. In the meantime, the administration sought and received the School Committee's blessing to make line-item transfers to cover the expenses it planned to fund through the affected grants.
Some of that money came from other grants, and $4,615 came out of the district's School Choice account.
"We're in a good place in terms of the fact that we're 30 percent through our budget year, and this is the first hit to School Choice," Grady said.
In other business Thursday, the committee agreed to allocate a little less than $500 for its share of the cost of hiring the Tri-District secretary to serve as recording secretary at meetings of the Transition Committee guiding Mount Greylock's move to a full PreK-12 district. Because the Transition Committee has no budget of its own, it asked the three currently independent school districts to split the cost of the recording duties based on the split in the current shared services agreement.
And, as its partners in Lanesborough will do, the WES Committee took a formal vote to disband Superintendency Union 71, effective June 30, 2018. SU-71 is the legal entity that allowed WES and LES to share central administration; it, in turn, formed a shared services agreement with Mount Greylock, paving the way for full regionalization.
"In some ways, it's sad to see it go but not really, because what we have is a more efficient way of achieving more of the the advantages [SU-71] created," Caplinger said after the 5-0 vote to disband the union. "But as a first step, SU71 was vital. For all who worked so hard back then to get that started, I'd like to thank them because we wouldn't be where we are today without their hard work."
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