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Study: Can Mobile Phone Bans Boost Test Scores?

All those teachers who collect mobile phones at the beginning of class may be onto something: A new study of English secondary students suggests student test scores rose in middle school classes that banned phones.

In a study released by the Center for Economic Performance at the London School for Economics and Public Policy, economists Richard Murphy of the he University of Texas at Austin and Louis-Philippe Beland of Louisiana State University tracked the performance of students from ages 11 to 16, who attended secondary schools between 2001 and 2013. During that time, national studies estimated more than 9 out of 10 English secondary students had mobile phones. 

"New technologies are typically thought of as improving productivity, however, this is not always the case," Murphy said in a statement. "When technology is multipurpose, such as cellphones, it can be both distracting and disruptive."

The students attended 91 schools in four cities—Birmingham, London, Leicester, and Manchester&mdash. All but one implemented strict mobile phone bans during the years of the study. After controlling for changes in student demographics at the schools during that time, the researchers compared differences in student test scores for each school before and after it restricted phones. 

For high-achieving students, the researchers found no significant effects. Younger teens whose classes banned cellphones were 2 percentage points more likely to pass subject-specific national exams, called General Certificates of Secondary Education. Their scores were 6.41 percent points of a standard deviation higher on average than similar students' scores before the bans were put into place. 

Students who were initially low-performing saw a more dramatic effect: After the cellphone bans took effect,  they were 4 percentage points more likely to pass the exams.

The data were taken from a national longitudinal sample, and there is no information on whether the phone bans were part of broader initiatives at the schools to, say, increase focus in classes. Still, the findings are in line with other studies finding phones can be distracting for students


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