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Computer spots students before they fail

If you begin to slip in Ed Banas's high school geometry class next September, the computer will tell on you. That's all to the good, says Mr. Banas.

Like many public high school math teachers facing upward of 150 students a day, Mr. Banas found that too often he ``wakes up in the morning to find Johnny, who had been scoring consistently in the 80s, is now scoring in the low 70s.'' Johnny had fallen through the cracks. But Johnny's decline can be reversed if discovered sooner, Mr. Banas feels.

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How to do that?

Banas, who tinkers with computers as a hobby, wrote a computer program that tells him instantly when a student's performance drops below an acceptable level. Either Banas or an assistant type scores from tests, quizzes, and homework into a minicomputer. Then, what used to be a laborious, inexact tracking process done once every two or three weeks can be done quickly, accurately, and daily.

Further, if a student's performance is waning, the computer automatically produces a notification letter to the parents.

A Farmington, Conn., math teacher selected from among several thousand New England teachers to attend a Harvard summer math workshop here, Banas says he will have five different math and science classes this fall -- ``a huge load.'' He will be busier, but he'll still know better than before how his students are doing.

Such monitoring is especially needed for math and the sciences, which require a line-upon-line type of learning, he says. ``You don't really need to be so up to date in a theater-arts class.''

By keeping parents informed, Banas says, his system battles the image problem of the ``uncaring'' teacher. It also has the effect of shifting more responsibility to the home, since parents can't complain they didn't know Johnny was failing.

Oddly, one obstacle Banas says such monitoring faces is the ``right to fail'' policy many school administrations take -- the assumption being that students need to learn from their mistakes. Banas feels there ought to be a more creative choice: `` `right to fail' is a little cruel, if there really is something we can do to help,'' he says.

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At the same time, it's important that students not feel that big brother is watching them. The technology, if used properly, can show that ``somebody cares about them,'' Banas says. ``Computers can have that function.'' 30{et