Politics & Government

Common Core could help narrow schools’ digital divide

The largest field test in the country of new online assessments aligned to the Common Core got underway in California this spring, and as it speeds up the state’s transition to the rigorous new standards, it may also help close the digital divide.

“This is the tipping point,” said Diane Hernandez, the director of assessment development for the California Department of Education. “Schools are starting to focus on the Common Core. We’re moving away from paper and pencil tests to a completely different format and developing more skills in terms of college and career readiness. Everything is moving in the direction of more technology, and everyone is doing the best they can to prepare for that.”

The shift began last spring, when Gov. Jerry Brown announced that every district would receive a proportional share of $1.25 billion in state-funded Common Core block grants that could be used for training teachers, new instructional materials and technology. That shift accelerated a few months later when the state decided to discontinue the annual assessment based on the old state standards and focus on the field test of Smarter Balanced, one of two national online assessments developed to support the rigorous Common Core standards.

If everything goes as expected, students will be tested on a final version of Smarter Balanced next spring and the results will be reported to the public.

These changes have motivated every district to take a hard look at its technological capacity.

“The field test is encouraging schools to start using technology well in advance of what they might have otherwise done,” acknowledged Cindy Kazanis, the director of the state’s educational data management division.

The move is happening not a minute too soon. In California, as in many other states, the level of technology available to students varies tremendously from district to district, school to school.

“We have some schools that have everything and others where technology is definitely lacking,” said Ben Sanders of the California Office to Reform Education, a collaborative whose 10 districts include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach, Sacramento and Fresno. “I’ve seen schools that are surprisingly under-equipped, right here in the Bay Area, which is supposed to be the zenith of technology.”

That assessment was echoed in a “digital report card” published this year by Digital Learning Now, a group that advocates for more online learning. California received an F – along with 27 other states that include Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and New Jersey – based on the state’s digital learning infrastructure. No state earned an A and only five got B’s.

The ranking looked at whether all schools have high-speed broadband, all teachers and students have Internet-access devices and whether the state had met certain benchmarks to ensure effective data use.

While some districts, notably Los Angeles Unified, are aspiring to the gold standard of one computer per student, very few in California are anywhere near that now.

Julian Union Elementary School District, outside San Diego, is one of them. Every student in the district has access to an iPad, Superintendent Kevin Ogden said, and the district’s broadband capacity can easily handle the new online testing requirements. The only things Julian administrators had to buy when the field test was announced were additional keyboards to plug into the tablets.

At the other end of the state, in northern Lassen County, Superintendent Rich DuVarney faced very different challenges. Even with the state block grant, this rural county has very limited funding for technology, and it chose to invest in more bandwidth and servers to prepare for the test.

“Now, out of our 10 districts, we only have bandwidth issues in two” of the smallest, he said. “We have computer labs in most of our schools, with 30 computers or so, and we'll just run the classes through there.”

The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit organization created to boost academic achievement in 17 of the city’s lowest-performing schools – in Boyle Heights, Watts and South LA – says it’s invested heavily in technology in recent years.

“We’ve been rolling out blended learning” – which combines classroom and online education – “for the last three years and have increased the number of (computer) carts with hot spots and computer labs in our schools,” said Colleen Oliver, the group’s chief academic officer. “We also have small stations of computers in some of our classrooms.”

Yet as they prepared for the field test, the partnership found that some of its computers were simply too old to run the new assessment.

“Infrastructure issues have been a little bit of a challenge, given that some of our schools are old and have high levels of poverty,” Oliver said. “Very few of our schools have broadband. Most still have T1 lines.”

The field test has also prompted districts to rethink their technical support needs. “Very few of our schools have a technical expert in the school,” Oliver said. Long a luxury, it’s soon going to be a necessity, she said.

State officials seem to be hearing those concerns. In mid-May, California’s governor announced that the state will provide an additional $26.7 million in one-time funding for technical assistance and grants to ease schools’ transition to the online assessment. And more money could be on the way.

As their investment in technology increases, schools are rethinking how they’re using computers in the classroom. In Los Angeles, some low-performing schools are using their computers to emphasize skills encouraged by the Common Core and the new assessments, including complex problem-solving, critical thinking and evidence-based writing, in which students use research to support their arguments.

“I can confidently say that the test is motivating schools to accelerate their efforts to transition to the Common Core,” said Sanders of the California Office to Reform Education. “And overall, the teachers seem to think it’s worthwhile and it’s testing the kinds of things the kids should be doing. The test is providing some clarity about where we’re trying to go.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education-news outlet that’s affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.