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Rural Schools Struggle to Prepare for Common Core's Online Tests

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Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Students at Union Local MIddle School work on PowerPoints in a computer class. The district says they don't have nearly enough computers to meet the tests to be administered by the Common Core curriculum.

Testing in schools is moving quickly from pencil and paper to computers.

That’s kind of a problem for rural schools; many don’t have the technology.

But a new curriculum, called the Common Core, is pushing districts in many states – including Ohio - into the Internet era.

That's because the new standardized tests that accompany the Common Core will be given online.

[audio href="" title="Rural Schools Struggle to Prepare for Common Core's Online Tests"]Many rural districts say they can't afford the upgrade to computer based testing. [/audio]

Union Local School District in rural Belmont, Ohio, says it'll have a hard time getting ready for the Common Core's online exams on time.

In rural Appalachia, inside the Union Local School District, students sit in a dark room – their faces illuminated by the glow of computer screens. Joey Maholovitch, the computer science teacher, is teaching a student how to use PowerPoint - on Microsoft Office 2003.

"And what year is it?" he asks sarcastically.

It’s not just the software that’s outdated. Just down the hall from the computer lab is a middle school classroom with several decade old big box computers.

"They're not capable of doing much and the Internet's almost impossible with these machines," says Jeff Bizzarri, thedistrict’s technology coordinator.

Technologically, this district is unprepared for the new Common Core tests. Union Local has roughly 100 computers that can handle the new assessments, and 1000 kids they’ll need to test.

[related_content align="right"]“We just don’t have the hardware," says Kirk Glasgow, the district's superintendent. “I mean I hate to even admit to this but we have some computers that are still operating on the Windows 95 operating system. That’s terrible. Windows 95 will not operate with these tests.”

The average family income around here is less than $40,000. Glasgow says the district had to cut 17 percent out of its $12 million budget over the last few years. They haven’t passed a levy since the 70’s. They can’t afford to buy new computers all the time.

Most of the computers they do have were donated.

Then there’s the issue of a high-speed connection. The district just got a bandwidth upgrade courtesy of a state program called ConnectOhio. It more than doubled the schools’ Internet speed. but Bizzarri, the tech coordinator, says that’s still not enough.

“We also are concerned about our bandwidth as far as all the internet usage that’s going to be involved with this, and there’s no way of knowing for sure how much bandwidth we’ll need," he says. "Of course bandwidth means money and we’d like to have an idea how much this is going to cost us.”

Jeff Bizzarri, the district's technology director estimates the district will have to spend $50,000 getting ready for the online tests in the next year, and another $10,000 annually to maintain the broadband necessary.

Access to the Internet is not just a problem at school. Many students don't have a computer or Internet in the home.

State officials acknowledge students in rural, poorer districts may not have as many opportunities to use computers, "but if you’re going to try to tell me that students don’t work on computers, they don’t have cell phones, they don’t have devices, I’m not going to really buy that," says John Charlton of the Ohio Department of Education.

Students say Charlton’s partially right.

But a gaming device or an iPhone isn’t enough to do homework or take tests.

Two recent federal studies estimated that across America 26 million people don’t have access to high-speed Internet. More than 70 percent of those are in rural areas.

In the Appalachian region of Ohio, one third of homes with children don’t have broadband - that translates to 125,000 homes without high speed Internet.

The state and federal governments are working to expand Internet accessibility in rural areas, as are some private companies.

But progress is relatively slow. Educators here say the state could do more.

Students who aren’t used to working on computers will be at a disadvantage when the computer-based exams are rolled out in 2014.

Students at Union Local Middle School have to do homework via an online program, called Study Island. Those who don't have a computer or Internet at home often have to schedule computer time into their day.

“They need a period of time for learning and the administration of a test is not enough time to learn the computer," says Aimee Howley, the associate dean at Ohio University’s College of Education.

Schools will have the option to administer paper and pencil tests in some circumstances, but state officials encourage schools to acquire the technology they need.

Computer fluency is the future, ODE’s John Charlton says, for education and employment. He points out that virtually all professions require some sort of computer knowledge.

That’s all well and good. But school officials say spending more on technology can be a hard sell.

That’s not surprising. A state study two years ago found that most people across the state just don’t really see a need for broadband in their own home.


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