Lack of Computers, Internet Access Causes South Carolina School Districts to Break New Testing Law

Forty of the districts said they did not have enough computers to give tests online. Thirty-six said they did not have adequate internet access.

by Jamie Self, The State (Columbia, S.C.) / August 1, 2017 0
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(TNS) -- Last year, S.C. lawmakers passed a law requiring school districts have their students take statewide tests online, using computers.

 

But 47 of the state’s more than 80 school districts – including five Midlands districts – requested waivers from that law last spring, opting for paper-and-pencil tests instead.

Forty of the districts said they did not have enough computers to give tests online. Thirty-six said they did not have adequate internet access.

Overcoming those barriers will take more than money to buy computers and wireless routers, according to reviews of S.C. school districts’ reports on their readiness for online testing.

In those reviews, some districts said their buildings are so old that renovating them to upgrade their technology would be too costly or impossible. Others cited leaky roofs and a lack of air-conditioning in closets, where data servers are located, as barriers to internet access. Others said building materials, including concrete walls that block wireless signals, make it difficult to expand internet access.

Testing barriers in some districts were far more dire than in others. According to Barnwell 19’s technology review, for example, "classroom clocks are old and do not work."

Of the 50 districts that voluntarily participated in the reviews, 31 could not meet online testing requirements for 2017 without significant improvements.

Millions in tech money cut

S.C. education advocates warned of the steep climb that many districts faced to prepare for online testing and the demands of digital learning.

Heeding that warning, then-Gov. Nikki Haley pushed – and lawmakers approved – sending about $29 million a year in 2015, 2016 and 2017 to school districts so they could buy tablets and computers, and improve internet connectivity.

But lawmakers cut that spending to $12 million in the budget year that started July 1.

Asked about that cut, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said, “Improving our state’s technology infrastructure is and must continue to be a top priority.”

S.C. students are required to have knowledge of computers by another state law that says all students should graduate from high school ready for college or a 21st century career, she added.

Also, in May, the state Board of Education voted to require school districts teach digital literacy in the third through eighth grades, starting in the 2018-19 school year.

The Education Department is offering to help districts move to full online testing. Districts have until Aug. 11 to request the assistance, according to a memo that went out to districts Friday.

Even with the help, state education officials anticipate districts again will ask for waivers from the law. “We are going to continue to see waivers, but our goal is to get as many of these districts up to snuff over the next year or so,” said Ryan Brown, Education Department spokesman.

Too young to test?

Some school administrators say online testing is not always a fair way of measuring a student’s knowledge.

Students have varying access to computers, tablets and internet access at school and in the home, they say. That means online testing could test their digital knowledge but not their knowledge of the subject that they are being tested on.

Florence 1, for example, cited concerns about its students’ keyboarding and typing skills, especially in elementary grades, and computer availability across the district to seek a waiver from online testing. “We believe that results obtained from online testing this year may be a measure of student technology proficiency and skills, and not academic abilities,” the district said.

Other school districts say some students simply are too young to take tests on computers.

Columbia’s Richland 1, for example, requested a waiver from computer testing for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders on the statewide writing exam.

Online writing tests are “developmentally inappropriate” for young students, the district said in its waiver request, echoing the concerns of other districts.

In a letter to the state, Richland 1 Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said there is much debate over “whether the youngest learners are ready to sit with two feet on the floor, elbows bent, hands hovering over keys, and eyes on the screen.”

“The keyboard,” he added, “is really not designed for accurate use ... by young hands.”

©2017 The State (Columbia, S.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.