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Roanoke businesses looking to cultivate their next generation of employees should consider donating their last generation of laptops.
Sunday, August 11, 2013
This spring, the state Department of Education required all elementary schoolchildren to take their reading and writing Standards of Learning exams on computers.
While the switch from pencil and paper was some years in the making, for many Roanoke students the fine-tuning of software and formatting changes fell a little too close to exam time for comfort.
For children whose every-day lives are filled with typing, texting, swiping and maneuvering from one device to another and one platform to another, taking an exam on a computer would prove no more vexing, in fact might have been preferable, to keeping the old No. 2 sharp.
But for Roanoke children whose only encounter with computers comes from limited classroom exposure, the test proved difficult. In reading, they were being tested not only on whether they knew vocabulary words, for instance, but on their ability to use technology-enhanced tools to prove their knowledge.
Soon Roanoke’s elementary SOL scores will be released to the public, and harsh judgments will accompany them because, to put it bluntly, they are dismal. Why, after several years of steady, encouraging progress, have these children slipped behind?
One answer might be that the tests were designed to meet more rigorous standards. But Superintendent Rita Bishop dismisses that. Unlike when the rigor of math exams was increased — and Bishop readily admitted Roanoke’s math department failed the students — this time, she’s certain the kids were prepared for the content.
Yet too many students spent eight stomach-churning hours, twice as long as ordinary, trying to finish; some broke down into tears of frustration and defeat.
Immediately, Bishop sat down with her team to figure out what would cause, for example, Westside’s writing scores to plummet from an 80 percent pass rate last year to just 39 percent? Some of the schools weren’t that awful. Fishburn dropped from 89 percent to 76 percent and Crystal Spring from 93 percent to 85 percent — drops that could reflect the harder test material.
Nor could the cause be attributed simply to the fallback that poorer performing students are, well, poor. That’s not an acceptable answer for Roanoke schools that have come too far in striving to close the economic gap and a community that demands it in order to ensure a well-educated, thriving city of the future.
What, then, is happening? One administrator during the team triage wondered whether the children who struggled had access to computers at home. Is there a technology divide with a breadth far wider and an impact far greater than school administrators previously had considered? Bishop asked Craig Ramey at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute to help them find out.
Every fifth-grader was asked a few questions: Is there a computer at home; if not, do you use one some place besides school (library, church, day care), and can you type?
Students — whether economically advantaged or disadvantaged — fell neatly along a technological bar graph. Only one-third of the students with no home computer and no access to one elsewhere passed the writing exam; two-thirds of all students with home computers passed. Forty-three percent without a home computer but some access to one elsewhere passed. The results did not speak of their ability to read and write; rather, of their ability to click and type.
Ramey’s results prompted this summer’s inaugural RCPS+ to focus intently on bridging the technology gap. But summer school is over for the 2,000 students who signed on for enhanced education. Bishop is determined to make sure every elementary student without a home computer has access to something that will help each develop and sharpen the technological skills so necessary to do well in school and later in the job market.
But determination isn’t money, a commodity always in short supply. Laptops out in the community, though, may not be in such short supply, especially as people cast them aside in favor of the latest tablet.
Bishop is now asking anyone, especially businesses, to donate their old laptops. They don’t need to have Internet access, only the capacity for the school system to load them with a word processing program and send them home for youngsters to keep journaling, keep advancing.
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