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Some Baltimore County teachers will give tests starting this month via hand-held devices instead of the usual pencil and paper, in a pilot program aiming to make their jobs easier - and engage students.

"We believe that this has the potential to benefit teachers and students greatly," said Mandi Dietrich, director of special projects, who is overseeing the pilot. The units "can expedite testing, which of course leaves more time for other instructional activities. ... They're also instructional tools."

With the iRespond devices - which resemble a TV remote control with a small digital screen - teachers can immediately access test results, eliminating the trip to a scanner to score the county assessments used to prepare students for state tests, Dietrich said. But they can be used for instructor-created tests as well, or for questions woven into regular classroom lessons.

"One of the things that, as teachers, we all strive to do is make sure we provide instruction that's tailored to meet a student's needs," Dietrich said. "Because assessment is part of teaching and learning, providing teachers with simply another tool that they can use to approach assessment, we know, has benefits."

Eleven schools - a mix of elementary, middle and high, from each of the district's geographic areas - are to give the hand-held devices a test run this year, with plans to use them for benchmarks and short-cycle assessments starting this month.

"We were looking for what's the next step to help the teacher - how do we keep them teaching versus correcting questions," said Steve Holmes, president of EduTrax, which provides testing and data services to the school system. "This is really going to streamline the testing process."

The company is also working with a school system in Georgia that plans to try the devices, Holmes said, adding that he expects more to embrace the technology.

The small-scale pilot, estimated to cost $25,000, serves to determine whether teachers find the units make them "more efficient and also more effective," Dietrich said. If the district ends up using them more widely, she said, school officials anticipate saving money on pre-printed scan sheets and printed assessments

Bianca Salemi, a pre-algebra and algebra teacher at Golden Ring Middle School, said she's excited about using iResponds beyond assessments, as she already incorporates a lot of informal-response questions into her lessons.

"Any time you can get technology in the classroom, it engages the students more," Salemi said.

Devices like the iResponds give students "ownership of their answer," allowing teachers to tap into those who are normally shy or don't participate in class, said Ryan Imbriale, principal of Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts. Students are "also going to be engaged and excited by the live data that they're seeing."

Imbriale was referring to a program feature that displays a graph showing a breakdown of the answers chosen for, say, a multiple-choice question.

That "immediate feedback" could help teachers determine whether they need to review a concept, said Kevin D. Roberts, Golden Ring's principal.

The idea of such interactive learning is not new to Golden Ring or other county schools, many of which use interactive white boards and hand-helds made by a company called Promethean. But that technology is not aligned with the district's assessment program - a feature that makes the new devices appealing, Roberts said.

"It just becomes more immediate," he said. "The sooner it's in there, the sooner you can start using the data."

Cheryl Bost, president of the teachers union, said she is "interested to see the results of this pilot" - and whether it truly cuts down on work for teachers.

"I'm glad to see that we're looking at ways to reduce workload. ... There's a lot of other things we need to do," said Bost, who has expressed similar concerns, most recently in response to plans to implement a detailed progress-reporting system districtwide.

"I think that eventually, it's going to make the life of a teacher much easier. ... It will really help us to pinpoint who needs what," said Melissa Inforna, who teaches algebra at Patapsco. "I feel like it's almost going to give [students] that motivation for testing again."

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