The Union City Story: Education Reform and Technology - Student Performance on Standardized Tests

April 1, 1998

In February of 1996, President Clinton and Vice-President Gore selected Union City as the site from which to announce a new multi-billion-dollar initiative, America's Education Technology Challenge. Union City was recognized by the President for its comprehensive program of educational reform, which has resulted in remarkable improvements in student learning and achievement. Closely tied to the district's reform initiatives has been an innovative schoolbusiness partnership with the Bell Atlantic Corporation, known locally as Project Explore, that has pioneered the use of home-school networking technologies to provide students and teachers with in-depth access to communications and information resources.

This paper is the first in a series supported by the Jerry Lee Foundation and the National Science Foundation to investigate the impact of state-of-the-art networking technologies in a reformed educational context on students' learning, teachers' teaching and parental involvement.

The findings presented in this report are based on standardized test results. Although by no means a perfect measure of students' learning, standardized test results are frequently the bottom-line measure for many school districts, particularly urban ones. To examine the impact that the reforms have had on students' test performance, we look first at the changes in students' scores prior and subsequent to the district's reform initiatives. These analyses are based on tests administered by the district at the 1st, 4th, 8th, 9th, and 10th grade levels.

We then proceed with a more in-depth analysis based on a cohort of students who have had sustained access to networked technology at home and at school (Project Explore), and a cohort of students who have had more limited, school only (non-Explore) access to technology. The analyses presented here are based on testing data at the 7th through 10th grade levels.

Our examination of the impact of the reforms and our investigation of the impact of technology on student learning indicate that:

  • The educational reforms undertaken by the Union City district have had a substantial impact on students' standardized test performance, particularly at the K-8 level where the reforms have been in place the longest.
  • The Explore students gain a substantial 'leg up' during the first year of the project, scoring significantly better than their district peers in writing and mathematics. This increase is not due to the technology alone, but to increased expectations and to the dedication of teachers and administrators in ensuring that this group of students would excel.
  • Writing is the one area where deep and sustained access to technology makes a difference. At the 7th, 8th, and 9th grade levels, Explore students do significantly better than their non-Explore peers on the writing portion of state tests.

While the findings clearly indicate that the reforms are having a substantial impact for all students in Union City, the role of technology is less clear. Although sustained access to technology has a measurable effect on students' middle school writing scores, students who have been in the district for a minimum of four years are performing at the same level as the Explore cohort by the 10th grade. In addition, although the Explore group appears to do significantly better than their district peers in mathematics, the cause is not technology-related. A subgroup of Explore students who participated in an Algebra I class as 8th graders do significantly better than Explore and non- Explore students who did not take this class. It is this Algebra I group that is responsible for raising the overall math scores of the entire Explore cohort. Finally, students who enter the Explore program in its second year (as 8th graders) never do as well as the 7th grade Explore entrants, nor do they perform significantly better than their district peers. This suggests that technology is not the sole cause of the Explore students' success; if it were we would see substantial gains among the 8th grade entrants to the Explore program.

This report finds that a range of factors, both contextual and technology-facilitated, have made a difference in the Explore students' performance.
Contextual factors include:

  • The enthusiastic and dedicated staff at the Christopher Columbus Middle School, where Project Explore was launched
  • High expectations for Explore students on the part of Bell Atlantic, district administrators, teachers, and a host of visitors from around the world
  • The district's efforts to involve parents more extensively in the education of their children.

Technology-facilitated factors include:

  • Increased communication between teachers, students, and parents
  • Increased collaboration among teachers
  • Additional opportunities to write and edit
  • Additional opportunities to undertake multimedia authoring projects.

This report concludes by discussing five elements that have been central to Union City's overall success:

  • Leadership and collaboration
  • Strong base of teacher support
  • Teachers at the center of curricular revision and school decision-making
  • Sufficient funding from a variety of sources
  • Attention to public relations


Han-hua Chang
Margaret Honey
Daniel Light
Andres Henriquez
Nancy Ross