Children with home computers likely to have lower test scores

DURHAM, N.C. — Around the country and throughout the world, politicians and education activists have sought to eliminate the “digital divide” by guaranteeing universal access to home computers, and in some cases to high-speed Internet service.

However, according to a new study by scholars at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, these efforts would actually widen the achievement gap in math and reading scores. Students in grades five through eight, particularly those from disadvantaged families, tend to post lower scores once these technologies arrive in their home.

Professors Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd analyzed responses to computer-use questions included on North Carolina’s mandated End-of-Grade tests (EOGs). Students reported how frequently they use a home computer for schoolwork, watch TV or read for pleasure. The study covers 2000 to 2005, a period when home computers and high-speed Internet access expanded dramatically. By 2005, broadband access was available in almost every zip code in North Carolina, Vigdor said.

The study had several advantages over previous research that suggested similar results, Vigdor said. The sample size was large — numbering more than 150,000 individual students. The data allowed researchers to compare the same children’s reading and math scores before and after they acquired a home computer, and to compare those scores to those of peers who had a home computer by fifth grade and to test scores of students who never acquire a home computer. The negative effects on reading and math scores were “modest but significant,” they found.

“We cut off the study in 2005, so we weren’t getting into the Facebook and Twitter generation,” Vigdor said. “The technology was much more primitive than that. IM (instant messaging) software was popular then, and it’s been one thing after the other since then. Adults may think of computer technology as a productivity tool first and foremost, but the average kid doesn’t share that perception.” Kids in the middle grades are mostly using computers to socialize and play games, Vigdor added, with clear gender divisions between those activities.

Vigdor and Ladd concluded that home computers are put to more productive use in households where parental monitoring is more effective. In disadvantaged households, parents are less likely to monitor children’s computer use and guide children in using computers for educational purposes.

The research suggests that programs to expand home computer access would lead to even wider gaps between test scores of advantaged and disadvantaged students, Vigdor said. Several states have pursued programs to distribute computers to students. For example, Maine funded laptops for every sixth-grader, and Michigan approved a program but then did not fund it.

“Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement” was published online by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The research was funded in part by the William T. Grant Foundation.

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10 thoughts on “Children with home computers likely to have lower test scores”

  1. Children are getting smarter and smarter and as parents we have to keep up with those little brains and really cultivate their minds. I started introducing my now two year old to computers at about the age of 6 months. He now can navigate his games by himself at only the age of two years old going on three.

  2. In general, I accept statements such as “we did A and then observed B” at face value. The moment cause is mentioned, warning flags go off in my head. Also, correlation does not show cause.

    Tread carefully.

  3. Is there an age at which home computers show a benefit? If I understand this brief summary, the decline in test scores is not seen exclusively in the homes of disadvantaged children.Alex does not seem off the mark. “Vigdor and Ladd concluded that home computers are put to more productive use in households where parental monitoring is more effective.” As a matter of influencing outcomes, it seems some effort should be made into researching how to incentivize parents to provide a better home learning environment.

  4. Low income families have a higher incident of mental health problems. Records show that inner cities also have a higher incident rate than rural areas.It’s not the people or their ethnic standing. It’s crowding. Students in those crowded situations create more opportunities for Subliminal Distraction exposure. SD is a normal feature in our physiology of sight. Forty years ago designers and engineers accidentally discovered it was capable of causing mental breaks for knowledge workers.I can assure you no one has considered this. They don’t know the problem exists or was ever discovered.Telling those students about the problem and showing them how to create safe study and computer workstations would test this.

  5. The reason children would have lower scores is because they are not using the compute as a tool but an entertainment center.

  6. I can see where Alex is getting that, there is one part where it talks about how parents that do a good job of monitoring and guiding their kids on the computer are the exception.

  7. In other words… households where parents do their job of parenting generally provide children who work harder and get better grades. Shocking

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