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Administrator Magazine
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Digital Wake-Up Call

Could online assessments spur districts to take the one-to-one leap?

Students who use computers for their writing assignments fared far better on the NAEP writing test, the first to be administered on computer, than students who do not.

Those results may not come as a surprise, but with comprehensive digital testing on the horizon, the implications extend far beyond the realm of writing instruction.

Online testing gives a "distinct advantage" to students whose homes and schools are rich in technology, says AASA chief Daniel Domenech. It's nothing new, he says, just the latest example of "the gap between the haves and have-nots."

Though the testing platform may reward digital literacy, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Computers are "the 21st-century pencil," says Domenech. Tech skills are not for just the college bound anymore. Fast-food and retail workers regularly use smart devices and computers at work, as do truck drivers and security guards. In fact, it's hard to think of a job that doesn't require digital literacy.

Sue Gendron, of Smarter Balanced Assessments Consortium (SBAC), agrees with Domenech that digital literacy is "an equity issue." They also agree that the solution is straightforward: Schools need to get computers and digital devices into students' hands. On the testing side, that will make it easier to assess their capabilities, says Gendron. But more important, it will give students the technical skills they'll need in the job market.

In that light, the advent of full-scale digital assessments serves as a welcome "wake-up call," says Mark Warschauer, a professor of education at UC Irvine who has researched technology in the classroom. "Testing drives everything. Unless you change the testing, you won't change the instruction, and you won't change the resources for instruction."

There's good news for cash-strapped districts, says Warschauer. Between low-cost netbooks and open-source software, the cost of going one-to-one-including teacher training, implementation, and repairs-has fallen below $125 per student per year. "That's probably equivalent to less than one half a student per year in class size," he says. "So the question is, Do you want to provide some sort of digital device for all kids and have 30 kids in a class, or not provide those devices and have 29.5 kids in a class?"

It's a question many admin­istrators are sure to be contemplating.   

—Late Fall 2012—

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