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Rural Schools Struggle With Increased Computer Testing

Testing in schools is moving quickly from pencil and paper to computers. That’s kind of a problem for rural schools in particular. 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. StateImpact Ohio’s Ida Lieszkovszky reports on the challenges of getting online. 

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.

Maholovitch: Microsoft office 2003 PowerPoint. And what year is it? 2013.

It’s not just the software that’s outdated. Jeff Bizzarri, the district’s technology coordinator, shows me some big box computers in the middle school.

Jeff: “These computers are approximately 10 years old. They’re windows XP with 256 megabytes of ram, so they’re not capable of doing much and the Internet’s almost impossible now with these machines.”

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.

Kirk: “We just don’t have the hardware.”

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

Most of the computers they do have were donated.

Glasgow: “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.”

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.

Jeff: “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. Of course bandwidth means money and we’d like to have an idea how much this is going to cost us.”

Access to the Internet is not just a problem at school.

Student montage:  “I don’t have a computer at my house … we used to have Internet…we don’t have a computer…now I don’t have like Internet connection.”

Those were Belmont County eighth graders Josh Taylor and Desiree Malson and seventh graders Cory Yockey and Deavian Turner.

State officials acknowledges students in rural, poorer districts may not have as many opportunities to use computers

John: “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.”

That’s 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.

So says Aimee Howley, the associate dean at Ohio University’s College of Education.

Howley: “They need a period of time for learning and the administration of a test is not enough time to learn the computer.”

And we all know kids catch on faster than adults.

Schools will have the option to administer paper and pencil tests in some circumstances.

State officials encourage schools to do whatever it takes to acquire the technology they need. Computer fluency IS the future, ODE’s John Charlton says, for education and employment.

Charlton: “The guy that delivers the new washer and dryer from HHGregg has a computer, I think the trash people actually have computers in their cars…everybody’s using computers, no matter what level, what profession you’re working at.”

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.

Stateimpact Ohio is a reporting collaborative in which some Ohio Public Radio stations pay National Public Radio to participate.