Some Oakland teachers and parents are questioning a plan by California to ask public school students to take standardized tests on computers, saying such a plan will deepen the digital divide and the achievement gap between haves and have nots.
Kids who don’t have computers at home or whose schools have too few computers to go around will be at a disadvantage, even if they are smarter or know the subject matter.
As part of the state’s adoption of the new national Common Core curriculum in public education, California Gov. Jerry Brown last week signed a law to replace the STAR tests California students have taken for two decades with new tests that are aligned with the Common Core curriculum and which would be taken on computers. This first year, the computer administered tests would just be practice and not counted in assessing schools and its students, according to the state plan. In subsequent years, they would count.
“We don’t have access to computer for all of our students,” said Oakland Unified School District teacher Chaz Garcia of Esperanza Elementary School on 104th Avenue. “So my concern is if we don’t have enough computers, or whatever technology we use, and if they are only used for assessment, than those students won’t have the familiarity that they need to be able to use it to be assessed and be successful.” Garcia said, speaking to members of the Oakland Unified School District board of education at their last meeting.
Oya Kali, a parent of a Metwest High School student, said the plan to administer tests on computers, “might isolate certain students who don’t have resources to have a computer at home.” She went further and warned the board not to create situations that feed a “school to prison pipeline” by setting some kids up for failure. “We are sending so many children to juvenile Hall and this program will only increase that number.” MetWest is on 10th Street in West Oakland.
The Common Core is a new K-12 curriculum being adopted by 45 states including California which emphasizes critical thinking, problem solving and writing rather than rote memorization. Oakland and many districts are starting to roll it out this year in mathematics and English classes.
While the curriculum is widely praised as good preparation for what students need in today’s workforce, the testing method may be premature for districts like Oakland which have been strapped for resources.
“We don’t have bandwidth in all of our schools,” noted board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge, questioning administrators about how they are going to do this.
Kim Shipp, a long time OUSD administrator, noted that keyboarding is no longer taught.
And West Oakland resident and former educator Ben Tapscott noted computer science courses are not available until the 11th grade at MyClymonds High School.
Oakland Unified School District has begun the work to adopt to the Common Core curriculum by training teachers in the new content and methods for teaching the Common Core curriculum and by developing an investment plan for technology, according to Maria Santos, Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, Leadership and Equity-in-Action, and Kyla Johnson-Tramwell, the administrator coordinating its implementation.
Oakland will receive about half a million dollars from the U.S. Department of Education this year to help implement Common Core and Tramwell said that will be invested in technology.
“It is our hope to use our one time funds to purchase devices, mobile lap tops for our computers,” Trammell said.
Investing in classroom computers and other technology, including the appropriate Internet connections and Web based applications “is the work of this year.”
Santos explained the goals of the switch to the Common Core curriculum. “Common Core are a set of nationally agreed upon standards that students need in order to succeed in college and careers,” she said. “One of the key motivations for a new set of standards is that students were not being sufficiently prepared for college and careers and not competitive internationally.”
Yet even if the schools become well-equipped, that may not be able to erase the digital divide. Some students in low-income neighborhoods do not have computers at home or they may have computers but not high speed Internet access. A rough survey done by Oakland Technology Exchange West found that 40 percent of residents in a West Oakland neighborhood were lacking either a computer or Internet access. The non-profit has donated tens of thousands of computers to Oakland public schools and to the families of Oakland students through the years.