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Technology would help teachers give faster feedback to students, lawmakers say

By Morgan Jacobsen | Posted - Jan. 28, 2015 at 7:03 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Legislators unanimously recommended a bill for House approval Wednesday that would provide English and writing teachers with computer programs to help them give more timely feedback on their students' coursework.

HB69 asks the Legis..lature for $1 million to provide supplemental software that can grade students on technical components of English language arts and writing, such as vocabulary, punctuation and grammar. It would also assess students' reading ability and comprehension level.

"I do not in any way see this as replacing a great English teacher, replacing a teacher who does literature, who has great discussions and teaches writing," said bill sponsor Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City. "But this would be a supplemental tool. We also know that the most effective tool is individualized learning, and that's exactly what this kind of software can do for students."

Rather than a statewide implementation, the $1 million appropriation would provide resources for fourth- through 12th-grade teachers who want to use a program in their class. Those who do would have to apply through the Utah State Board of Education, according to the bill's floor sponsor, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

"With $1 million, we won't have enough to provide every English teacher with software. And that's a good thing because it isn't an entitlement," Stephenson said. "It is something they have to step up and say, 'I want that for my classroom.'"

If the bill passes and student performance shows a measurable improvement, the Legislature could allocate additional dollars to advance the program, according to Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, chairman of the House Education Committee.

"There's little doubt in my mind that if we see there's great success with this kind of software in those grades, that we as a Legislature would be compelled to find additional funding," Last said.

Lawmakers said they hope the program will be useful for teachers with especially large classes in which grading assignments takes longer and students don't often get timely feedback on their work.

Moss said a computer-based program would cut down on time teachers spend grading technical elements of coursework, giving them more time to focus on writing style and classroom discussions.

The bill does not identify a software vendor but gives the State School Board and local school districts the discretion in selecting a program that best meets their needs. Schools could also elect to use the program for struggling students or those who need more challenging work, according to Jennifer Thronson, K-12 literacy coordinator for the Utah State Office of Education.

"When we can push students a little bit beyond where they are and give them the scaffolding support that typical software programs can provide, they actually grow at faster rates," Thronson said.

Last year, only 42 percent of Utah students scored proficiently in language arts on SAGE, Utah's year-end student assessment. But software programs that provide them with more timely feedback in reading, language arts and writing could be helpful for schools that are falling furthest behind, according to Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns.

"I think this is going to be very, very popular because I know that's where a lot of the failing schools are really struggling is in this particular topic," Hutchings said. "I think it's time for something like this to be tried."

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Morgan Jacobsen


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