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In school iPad project, L.A. might need to tap funding for keyboards

School district's $1-billion tablet-for-every-student project could need a further outlay for keyboards.

September 02, 2013|By Howard Blume
  • Students in Karen Finkel's class at Broadacres Elementary School in Carson explore their new iPads, provided by the Los Angeles Unified School District. District officials are acknowledging an additional looming cost in the $1-billion effort to provide iPads to every student: keyboards.
Students in Karen Finkel's class at Broadacres Elementary School… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles school officials are acknowledging a new looming cost in a $1-billion effort to provide iPads to every student: keyboards.

Officials so far have not budgeted that expense, but they said the wireless keyboards are recommended for students when they take new state standardized tests.

If keyboards were to be provided for all 650,000 students, the cost could be more than $38 million at current retail prices. It's not clear if the district plans to provide keyboards for all, and officials were not prepared to estimate the cost during a meeting last week of a Board of Education committee that is tracking the iPad initiative.

Board member Monica Ratliff, who chairs the panel, said the district needed to be transparent about such expenses.

"It's important that the public is told of any additional costs that the district can predict," she said later.

So far the district has committed to paying Apple $30 million to provide tablets at 47 schools. Over time, funding for all iPads will reach about $500 million. Another $500 million will be spent on items such as installing wireless Internet throughout the nation's second-largest school system.

The project is funded by voter-approved school construction bonds, which typically are paid off by taxpayers over about 25 years.

Students at two elementary schools received the iPads last week in the first rollout. All students are supposed to have tablets by December 2014.

As of now, the iPad project does not include wireless keyboards, in part because the tablet computers have touch screens.

But that setup might not satisfy the needs of older students writing term papers, for example. And if typing on them proves more difficult, that could frustrate or hinder students as they take new online tests. The device's touch screen could even obscure portions of a test item that would be visible in its entirety on a full screen.

For some time, the district has planned to use the devices for testing based on new English and math learning standards, called the Common Core, that were adopted by California and 44 other states.

These new tests are supposed to measure deeper understanding, and they also will adapt to a student's knowledge, said Gerardo Loera, the district's executive director of curriculum and instruction.

For example, a student who quickly and correctly answers the first set of questions will get increasingly more difficult ones. The goal is to provide a more precise read on what the student knows, which has value for teaching beyond providing a test score. The same process also applies for students who fare poorly on early questions; their test will become easier, tailored to determine exact skill levels.

After reviewing the difficulty of test items, Loera concluded that too many district students were not ready to handle them.

"I thought: My god, we have a lot of work to do," he told the committee.

Achievement results in some places, including New York, that have begun using Common Core-linked tests showed a sharp drop in the percentage of students rated at grade level.

States also are facing technological challenges. Thirty-four reported such challenges as having adequate Internet access and sufficient numbers of computers, in survey results released last week by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. Initially, the new tests will have a paper-and-pencil version for those states that are catching up.

L.A. Unified has been a technology hodgepodge. Some schools have virtually no up-to-date computers, while others are better provided for.

District officials hope that student familiarity with iPads will give them a leg up on the new exams, which are being field-tested this year in California. They are expected to replace the old state tests in spring 2015.

The timetable is "absolutely a compressed schedule. We know that. It's daunting," said chief information officer Ronald Chandler. "But it's going to be amazing."

L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy has made the push for iPads a major district effort, saying it will improve student learning and put the district's low-income families on an even footing, in education, with those in more prosperous areas.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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