AUBURN — Kindergartner David Hall worked on math on his iPad Wednesday morning.
Playing “Feed the Hippos Hot Peppers,” the Sherwood Heights Elementary pupil counted aloud as his fingers moved peppers into a hippo's mouth.
Early test results of kindergarten pupils like David who used iPads for nine weeks last fall — compared to kindergartners who did not — show the iPads pupils did better, according to an Auburn School Department report released Wednesday.
In 9 of the 10 areas of testing around pre-reading skills, the group of 129 students with iPads made slightly larger gains than the 137 students without. Testing included listening and comprehension, identifying letters, reading, vocabulary and identifying letter sounds.
Only one area, however, was statistically higher: recognizing sounds and writing letters. In that test, students were dictated words. They had to translate the sounds into letters and write the words. Kindergartners with iPads gained 13.72 points, compared to an 11.58-point gain for students who didn't have iPads. That difference is significant, said Mike Muir, the Multiple Pathways leader for Auburn schools.
Damian Bebell of Boston College, who worked with Auburn on the research, told the Auburn School Committee on Wednesday night, “In every measure we examined, the iPad students were outperforming the comparison students. When looking at short-term literacy gains, we're definitely seeing the data trending toward favoring the iPad students.”
Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin said the results were exciting.
“We're pleased with such a short window of using iPads as instructional tools,” Grondin said. “We are seeing it's making an impact in learning.”
Last year, Auburn made national headlines and created controversy among some taxpayers when it gave kindergarten students iPads. Half of the students got iPads in September, the other half in December. The goal was to do research comparing the two groups to see what difference the iPads made.
More complete research will follow over longer periods, including comparing this year's kindergarten achievements to last year's.
Another next step is to seek grant money to pay for more iPads to expand their use in Auburn schools.
Grondin said she would propose in the 2012-13 budget buying another round of iPads for next year's kindergartners. Auburn spent about $230,000 last year on the tablet computers, which cost $500 each. If approved, both kindergartners and first-graders would have iPads next year.
School Committee member Bonnie Hayes cautioned that that is far from a given. “With our finances, you better get a grant, and a good one,” Hayes said.
Several members questioned whether the iPads could be shared next year. Grondin said it would not be the same kind of program, that the iPads are customized to individual students, much like cellphones.
With the research it has done, the School Department hopes to get grant money to pay for the iPads, which was one reason for giving them to half of the students and comparing achievement. Muir said a grant committee is working with former Gov. Angus King, who has generously agreed to look over Auburn's cases for grants.
The testing Auburn did was a high standard of research grant givers “look for to fund you or not, Muir said. “This can open up funding for us.” The data could also come in handy as the Maine Department of Education explores how to expand digital learning throughout Maine, and as other schools look to Auburn to learn about iPads, Muir said.
Teachers are excited about the iPads, committee members were told.
Sherwood Heights Elementary School kindergarten teacher Susan Lemeshow called the iPads “one of the most powerful teaching tools I've ever used. … I can put her on one book, her on a different level book,” she said of two girls in her class.
Pupils are doing the same lesson, “but at the level they need,” she said. “Students are constantly doing the skills we want them to do. They are going to learn words in a way some of them might not have ever learned.”