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Iowa School District Pioneers iPods for Special-Ed Testing
Sandwiched between two of Iowa’s more rural counties, the Louisa-Muscatine Community School District and its centralized campus, nuzzling Highway 61 and currently barren crop fields, may not seem like the type of educational facility that would gain international notice for technological advances. Looks, however, can be deceiving.
Next week, when elementary students in the district sit down to take the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, some will have the added assistance of an Apple iPod at their side. The event will be a technological breakthrough in standardized testing that will likely produce ripple effects throughout the state and nation.
The district’s iPod Project began in 2005 when the district’s technology team, facing a very basic problem, came up with a very innovative solution. Special-education students, mainstreamed into traditional classrooms, needed help taking tests. Often, the students were being pulled from their classrooms to have tests read to them or entire classes were being forced to work at a slower pace as teachers read questions aloud.
While brainstorming possible technology projects for upcoming grants on a conference call, Scott Grimes, the elementary school principal at the time, recalled hearing about a new media player from Apple that could handle video. The team came up with the idea of recording test questions for playback on the device, allowing the district’s special-education students to remain in the classroom while continuing to work at their own pace.
“At that time, the idea was more centered around using a laptop for access for students and communications with parents,” said Grimes, who now serves as superintendent of schools. “But as we started talking about the idea, it just didn’t gel. We also felt it wouldn’t be adequate for the state grant — that it wasn’t far enough out-of-the-box.”
Escaping the Box
Grimes said that when the idea of using the iPods to assist the special-education students was formed, the entire group had an “ah-ha” moment. Although other school districts around the nation had dabbled with using iPods for language fluency purposes and for students learning English as a second language, the idea of using them as assistive technology for special-education students was new.
The district initially purchased two iPods for a pilot project while the grant was submitted to the Iowa Department of Education. Unfortunately, the state agency declined grant money for the project.
“We were told at that time that the project wasn’t innovative enough,” said Andy Crozier, elementary technology instructor. “We were shocked by the response. No one had ever done this before. It was a new idea on how to use technology in education and it was very practical.”
Because the pilot project had been such a great success, the district’s board of education appropriated $10,000 from general funds for the purchase of 32 iPods and other needed items (devoted laptop, software, USB ports, headphones, etc.) to set the project in motion. The district began by serving special-education students in third through sixth grades.
“If we can keep the students in their classrooms with their peers — whether test scores shoot up or stay the same — the iPod Project is being effective,” Crozier explained.
Providing students with what they need to reach their personal potential while within a core classroom environment, said Grimes, has always been the focus of the program. The added bonus, which hasn’t gone unnoticed as students have progressed from grade to grade within the district, has been an increase in self-esteem and self-confidence.
“The students’ confidence levels have definitely gone up,” he said. “They don’t feel as isolated. They don’t feel like they’re different. A lot of the feedback we’ve received is from people who have already graduated, who went through school as a special-education student. They are very supportive and express how they wish they would have had a similar option when they were in school.”
Taking the Next Step
Grimes says he is asked frequently how he anticipates test scores, especially those from the ITBS, to change now that the students have more self-confidence and are able to work more independently.
“In my mind, it’s not about raising the test scores,” he said. “I mean, yes, we hope that’s going to happen because we want to use tools that enhance students’ lives so they can make larger gains and they can hopefully get the skills they need so they no longer require special-ed services. But the ultimate goal is to provide students a less restrictive environment.
“Right now, we are going to have 35 students take [the ITBS] independently. That’s really what all the other students have been doing. They sit at their desk and they take the test. The special-education students have never had opportunity to do it that way. This will be the first time that they do.”
Although the district is contacted weekly by educational institutions throughout the nation and overseas that want to learn more about the iPod Project and the district has been featured on the Apple website, the ITBS testing has brought even more excitement and scrutiny to the project. Grimes said he initially contacted the University of Iowa’s College of Education to assure them that the district was not currently using the iPods for standardized testing.
“There were some who thought we were,” he said. “Of course, that wasn’t the case, because you can’t do that without special permission.”
It wasn’t until after David Frisbie, director of the Iowa Statewide Testing Program, visited the district and learned more about the program that Grimes, Crozier and special education teacher Michelle Ryan were given permission to allow the school’s special-education students to use the iPods during the test.
“The students were engaged in the testing process, and they seemed comfortable using the iPod and headphones for this purpose,” Frisbie wrote in his approval letter. “Using this approach will allow for a more standard administration of the tests and will allow students who work at different rates to complete the test without being hurried.” Frisbie added that he hoped the work being done by Louisa-Muscatine would benefit other school districts.
The district has since worked with Frisbie and his office to ensure the existing high standards of security for the test have been maintained while the information is prepared for upload to the iPods.
While the primary focus of the iPod Project has been and continues to be with the special-education students, the district has found opportunities for broader use of the technology — an option made possible when the board of education elected to fund the project with money not specifically earmarked for special-education. A video shown to a class of 20 or more students, for instance, can be uploaded onto the iPods so that each student in the class can have his or her own unit and work at his or her own pace.
“We’re always looking for new ideas,” Crozier said. “There’s no one use for any single piece of technology we have in our district. If there is multiple uses, and if it is beneficial to our students, we’ll use it.”