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Study Island: improving kids' scores with fun and games (11/23/2011)
By Sarah Squires

Photo by Sarah Squires
      Second graders Ella Skranka (front) and Ella Schultz (in orange) worked on Study Island last week.
In Winona Area Public Schools, students are spending time on the computer, intently competing for the first place title in games like mini golf, photo hunt, fishing challenge, and everyone’s favorite -- skate park.

But it’s not all fun and games. It’s actually a relatively new learning tool called Study Island, incorporating Minnesota state standards for reading and math. Not only does Study Island give kids a fun new way to practice the skills necessary to do well on standardized tests, but it actually allows teachers to track and monitor their progress, helping them to target lesson plans for students to highlight the skills they’re having trouble with.

And the kids love it.

Some parents already know about Study Island, because kids are playing at home too. W-K piloted the math component three years ago, and has had more time with Study Island thus far. And last summer, more than 50 kids logged onto Study Island from home, showing school leaders just how popular it has become.

“Kids seem to really stay engaged,” said Curriculum Director Jenny Bushman. “It catches them in some way.”

Students can choose whether to play in test mode or game mode, but each option requires questions to be answered correctly in order to move on to the games that are so popular. The math component was launched first, and the reading option has been piloted at W-K, too.

Bushman said that for the math component, it has helped students get used to doing math on a computer screen, since MCAs math testing is now done on computer too. “Just to see how that format is different, what you do differently when you read a question on a monitor rather than on paper,” she said. “That exposure was nice for our kids last year.”

Younger students are “buddied up” with older elementary kids when they first get started with Study Island, said K-5 Math Specialist Corey Lee. The program appeals to kids of all ages, and is offered at the Middle School and High School. High School service learning students sometimes come and help out during lab time, and Lee said when they are trained, they don’t want to quit playing, either.

One of the real assets to the program, said Lee, is the way that teachers can use it to track progress and see where students might need a bit more classroom instruction. “Common assessments line up by skill,” said Lee, “so that part’s easy for them.” Taking a look at which skills some students are having a hard time with can also provide opportunities to group students for help in certain areas too, he said. And, if all kids seem to have mastered an area, it can mean a teacher will focus classroom time on other areas. When it comes time for standardized tests, teachers can see what information students have retained, and what they might need to brush up on.

“They can individualize [performance] for a student, and that is nice,” said Bushman. “You can do that fairly quickly without digging through a bunch of paperwork. It’s all right there.”

Lee said that when teachers were asked last year what they felt was really helping with MCA test scores, just about every teacher included Study Island in the top three factors. “It’s a way they can practice the test skills and format without drilling and killing them,” said Lee.

Dr. Jack Kaehler, principal at W-K and Rollingstone elementaries, helped bring the program to the district. “We have just been excited that we’ve had this opportunity to have this program,” he said. “We feel at W-K that it has had a huge impact with our students. We can actually track the kids to see what kind of progress they’re making, even on their own [at home].”

Bushman, who used the program as a classroom teacher, said Study Island alone isn’t the answer when it comes to improving test scores, but it presents teachers and students with new kinds of technology that can help make learning, and classroom time, more of a custom fit. “I don’t think it’s an end all, but I think it’s one more tool that’s a good thing for kids,” she said.

Newsletters sent home each month for parents include information on how to log on to the program from home, which requires a password.



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