Schools to feel effects of MCI WorldCom merger with Sprint: $115 billion deal would be largest-ever takeover

MCI WorldCom Inc. has announced what could become the largest corporate takeover in history. It’s a move significant to schools and anybody else who uses telephones, cable TVs, or the internet. On Oct. 5, the nation’s second largest long-distance firm unveiled plans for a $115 billion acquisition of Sprint Corp., America’s third-largest long-distance company.

All the implications for schools were not immediately apparent at press time. But—at the least—educators can expect the combined company, which will be called WorldCom, to have a significant effect on the telephone rates schools pay, the telecommunications services schools use, the number and complexity of the telecommunication bills schools receive, and quite possibly even the long-term viability of the eRate.

The eRate is a federal discount funded through telecommunications company revenues. It helps schools and libraries connect to the internet.

Although the smart money is betting the mega-merger ultimately will go through, the officials in Washington who must approve the deal were raising questions.

The nation’s top telephone regulator immediately warned the companies that they “bear a heavy burden to show how consumers would be better off” as a result of the merger.

The combined company would control 30 percent of the U.S. long-distance market, as well as offer wireless phone and paging services and an internet network. WorldCom also would be a stronger competitor to AT&T Corp., the nation’s largest long-distance and cable TV company.

But William E. Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said MCI WorldCom and Sprint will have to make a strong case for approval of the deal.

“American consumers are enjoying the lowest long-distance rates in history and the lowest internet rates in the world for one reason: competition,” Kennard said in Washington. “Competition has produced a price war in the long-distance market.

“This merger appears to be a surrender,” he said. “How can this be good for consumers?”

Bernard J. Ebbers, president and chief executive of MCI WorldCom, told reporters in New York, “We understood from day one it is our burden of proof to show this is pro-competitive.” He added, “We look forward to the opportunity of doing that.”

Consumers might not see any immediate benefit from the acquisition of Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint because long-distance and wireless calling rates already are at historic lows. The new WorldCom, however, would offer a broader range of products by combining the strengths of MCI WorldCom and Sprint.

For schools, that might mean the chance to bundle long-distance, wireless, and internet services together into attractive packages that could rival those of AT&T. But Tom Magee, an attorney with Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP, a firm that handles eRate issues for Ohio schools, cautioned that such bundles wouldn’t necessarily translate into less administration on the part of schools for programs such as the eRate.

“With the layers of bureaucracy involved in a large company, it can be trouble getting things done on a timely basis,” he said. “I’d imagine the problem would be compounded when two large companies get together.”

Sweetening the deal

MCI WorldCom in the final hours of merger negotiations sweetened its offer to $76 per share in stock rather than risk losing Sprint to rival BellSouth Corp., which had offered $72 per share in cash and stock, or $100 billion.

Both companies’ boards voted to approve the deal, and it was formally announced on Oct. 5. The deal would be the largest corporate merger ever, eclipsing the pending $82 billion deal between Exxon Corp. and Mobil Corp.

MCI WorldCom is the nation’s second biggest long-distance company and one of the world’s biggest operators of the networks that make up the internet, but it has no wireless calling business. Sprint PCS would fill that hole nicely.

“The merger with Sprint is particularly timely as wireless communications emerges as a critical component of full-service offerings,” said Ebbers. “Increasingly, wireless will be used for internet access and data services, two areas in which both companies excel.”

BellSouth was seeking Sprint’s long-distance business to complement its local telephone business in nine states in the Southeast. Like the other Baby Bells, the Atlanta-based company is hopeful that federal regulators will soon allow it to offer long-distance service in its home region.

Even the mightiest telecommunications companies are racing to grab an edge in technology and geographic reach so they can compete in a market where distinctions between telephones, television, radio, and computers are disappearing.

There have been 233 telecom deals this year alone, totaling $195 billion, according to Thomson Securities Data Co. If the MCI WorldCom deal with Sprint goes through, this year’s total will blow past the $220 billion in telecom deals signed for all of 1998.

MCI WorldCom Inc.

Sprint Corp.

AT&T Corp

Federal Communications Commission


NPR poll: Public would OK tax hikes for more school computersBut ‘lack of technology’ not seen as a pressing problem

Public support for school computers is so strong, a National Public Radio (NPR) poll shows, that citizens say they’d pay higher taxes to put more technology in the classroom. But at the same time, NPR found, the public doesn’t see the lack of classroom computers as a top-tier problem for schools.

An overwhelming 81 percent of those surveyed said they would support placing more computers into classrooms—even if it means higher taxes. But respondents also ranked “lack of computers and technology” near the bottom of a list of problems plaguing America’s schools.

The telephone survey, headed by Mark Rosenbaum, NPR’s education editor, randomly sampled the opinions of 1,422 parents and non-parents nationwide. It consisted of 47 questions, some of which had multiple parts.

Responses were returned from both listed and unlisted phone numbers and were weighted according to the overall representation in the population of various demographic groups. That means that if African-Americans represent 14 percent of the population, for example, and only 13 percent of those polled were African-Americans, their responses were given increased weight to compensate for the discrepancy.

The survey identified strong public support for educational reforms, even those that could cost more money and require additional tax dollars. Three out of four Americans said they would be willing to have their taxes raised by at least $200 a year to pay for specific measures to improve public schools in their communities; more than half (55 percent) said they would be willing to have their taxes raised by $500. Only 16 percent say they would not pay even an additional $100 for this purpose.

When given a short list of possible changes that could cost more money, 81 percent of respondents said they favor placing more computers into classrooms (61 percent strongly and 20 percent not strongly). Computers ranked third in support behind fixing run-down schools (92 percent) and reducing class sizes (86 percent).

When presented with a list of 12 problems schools in their communities might face, respondents also were asked to rank each choice as “a major problem,” “a minor problem,” or “not a problem.”

Of the parents and non-parents surveyed, only 24 percent said that a lack of computers and technology is a major problem in their community, 40 percent said it is a minor problem, and 32 percent said it is not a problem at all.

When asked how to rank the same list of problems in the nation’s public schools as a whole, the figures were slightly higher, with 30 percent calling lack of technology a major problem, 48 percent calling it a minor problem, and 19 percent saying it was not a problem at all.

To compare figures: 78 percent of respondents said that “lack of parental involvement” is a major problem in the nation’s schools; 69 percent identified students’ use of alcohol or illegal drugs as a major problem; 73 percent said students who are undisciplined and disruptive; 61 percent said overcrowded classrooms; and 64 percent listed violence and lack of school safety as a major problem.

In fact, lack of computers and technology ranked at or near the bottom of the list of problems for both parents and non-parents. Only “discrimination against children because of race or gender” was considered a national problem by fewer people.

Interpreting the figures

When asked to interpret the survey’s findings, Rosenbaum said, “I’m not sure technology is such a small problem. We started with 35 possible education issues and narrowed the list to 12 because of time. [Lack of technology] may have been last on the list of 12, but there were some really big issues addressed on that list.”

Still, to proponents of educational technology, it’s clear that school leaders have their work cut out for them to show how technology is integral to overall school reform efforts.

“People don’t realize the disparity between the level of technology in schools and in the business world,” said Allen Schmieder, vice president of K-20 education at JDL Technologies. “Computers are seen by most people as tools rather than what they are: an integral part of our lives. They are changing the way we do everything.”

Schmieder said the reason many parents might not recognize the dire need for technological advancement in the nation’s schools is because they are influenced by the general press, which “gives a lot of attention to other issues.”

Given the concerns about a variety of issues in K-12 education, policy makers and school leaders might have to rethink their approach to selling technology to the public, said Al Zeisler, president of Integrated Technology Education Group.

According to Zeisler, among the conclusions that could be reached from the survey is that to continue to obtain support for multibillion dollar school technology spending, the investment must be shown to offer solutions to a broad spectrum of problems people think schools now face.

“We must expand our thinking of how to use technology to encompass all the challenges that a school system may encounter,” Zeisler said. “We must not only emphasize the use of technology to support curriculum, but show how it can take on a more strategic role in the schools and the community at large.”

NPR survey education/education.front.html

JDL Technologies


Web-based software could spell relief for school nurses

Elizabeth B. Guerard

Assistant Editor

A new software solution promises to help chronically overburdened school nurses get a handle on their caseloads, track reimbursable student health services, and even issue bills automatically to Medicaid.

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the Center for Pediatric Research have introduced a web-based computer software system, called Welligent, that helps school nurses manage their caseloads and streamline their work process.

“The volume of cases many school nurses are trying to take care of is huge,” said John Pestian, director of health informatics research at the Center for Pediatric Research. “Some are seeing up to 70 or 80 kids a day. Even the most well-run doctor’s office is probably only seeing 30 or 40 a day.”

Welligent is a modular software suite that promises to streamline the various tasks involved in managing a school’s health program. School nurses, administrators, and therapists can choose to access the Clinic, Billing, Special Education, Administration, or Report modules when they use the product to track and receive information about their students’ health.

The Clinic Module allows users to maintain a log of visits to the school clinic. It documents services, provides nurses with quick access to students’ health records, tracks individual health plans and immunizations, tracks and schedules medications, and allows for mass health screenings.

The Special Education Module helps nurses regulate plans of care, such as speech therapy or physical therapy, and tracks the progress of students on short- and long-term therapy programs. It also allows for documentation of private and group therapy sessions.

The Billing Module electronically submits bills for low-income students or students with disabilities to Medicaid. This reportedly shortens the time it takes for schools to be reimbursed for care. Welligent billing experts, according to developers of the software, also help users by evaluating documentation to ensure Medicaid compliance, providing feedback and training to those submitting requests for payment, and helping to ensure billing accuracy.

Welligent’s Administration Module gives school nurses and administrators access to the software at all levels and lets users create reports and develop standard operating procedures.

Finally, the Report Module allows school officials to keep track of health conditions and trends within their schools, across districts, or statewide, through charts and records. Using the Report Module, officials can gain a better understanding of health and educational issues, such as asthma and attention deficit disorder. Administrators also can track when and where nurses are most needed in a school system.

Sample screens from all five modules can be found on Welligent’s web site (see “Links” below).

The producers of Welligent also promise to provide training to users, both on-site and through eMail and phone support. School districts are encouraged to select a point of contact to receive the most extensive hands-on training with the software.

A ‘time-saver’

The software is the result of almost five years of development and research by VDH and other health organizations, developers said.

VDH, in concert with several Virginia universities, gathered information about the capabilities that school nurses and administrators thought a school health software program should possess. A School Health Information System Task Force was created in 1996 to determine the feasibility of establishing a school health information system in Virginia. Development and testing began shortly thereafter.

In 1997, VDH was joined by the Center for Pediatric Research (a joint program of Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters and the Eastern Virginia Medical School), and together they finished the web-based system.

Jeanne Bowers, marketing director at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, said, “This is the only web-based school health software out there. If kids move from school to school, their records can move with them.”

The makers of Welligent installed the software as part of a pilot program in Virginia’s Allegheny Highlands and Covington City school districts at the end of the last school year. Nursing staff are looking forward to using the program in the current school year, according to Leslie Downer, nurse coordinator for the two districts.

“Welligent has been helpful so far, because now we don’t have to go to different places for all the information we need,” Downer said. “It’s also a time-saver for documenting mass screenings.” The Record Module is also a benefit to nurses, Downer said. “I’m hoping this program will be able to show the correlation between health status and academic success.”

Welligent can be installed through a school’s own secure internet web site or may be installed on a school intranet or network, making it accessible to all those with access inside a particular school or across an entire district.

Welligent’s makers said they designed the product with accessibility in mind and it includes graphical user interfaces and point-and-click functionality. To use the software, schools must have a Power Macintosh or Pentium 200 computer, an internet browser equal to or higher than Netscape 4.0 or Internet Explorer 3.02, and a network connection or 56K dedicated modem line, in addition to some basic peripheral hardware.

Bowers said the pricing for Welligent depends on whether the client prefers to buy the software and use its own server or make use of Welligent’s server, and how many students and school officials are using that particular package. However, she added, “We are price-competitive with other school health products.”

If a school or school district opts to use the Billing Module, Welligent keeps 15 percent of the actual recoverable reimbursements from Medicaid. For more information, call the toll-free number (877) 546-7516 or visit the web site.


Center for Pediatric Research


From the Publisher: Nothing is ever simple

Such are the vicissitudes of life in the twilight of the 20th century that in a world of uncertainty and doubt, one principle remains constant and abiding: Nothing is ever simple.

You see it all the time.

If you simply want to fly from Baltimore to Dallas without paying a fare that once would have purchased the airplane, you have to go by way of Cleveland or, perhaps, Detroit. If you have a tooth ache and simply want relief, you must go to a dentist who will not just plug or pull it. No, the dentist will triage you to a specialist, who will prescribe pills and palliatives—which must, of course, be approved by a battery of claims examiners. And then the specialist will tell you to bring your mouth back in a week.

The same endemic complexity arises when you try to decide what to think of the biggest corporate merger in the history of the world. (Such an unprecedented, record-breaking phenomenon, incidentally, seems to occur nowadays about every six months. Not long ago, it was the unprecedented, record-breaking $82-billion union of Exxon and Mobil. Now, it’s the $115-billion-plus betrothal of MCI WorldCom and Sprint.)

As we report on Page One, MCI WorldCom, the nation’s second largest long-distance telephone service provider, is about to swallow Number Three: Sprint. The outcome of that merger would be a mammoth corporation, holding vast power to affect our lives and schools.

For some, seeing so much business muscle in one enterprise might be worrisome. It certainly doesn’t sit well with some consumer advocates or with the Communications Workers of America, who want to keep MCI WorldCom and Sprint disconnected to save thousands of their members’ at-risk jobs. So, from some perspectives, the merger might be a bad thing.

But wait a minute. Competition is supposed to be the lubricant of commerce and the bulwark against price gouging. And, WorldCom, the giant that would result from the proposed amalgamation, would still be a full head shorter than its nearest rival, the towering Number One telco, AT&T.

Without MCI WorldCom and Sprint coming together and bulking up, it’s unclear what other telecommunications contender in that land of giants would be even close to large enough to pose serious competition for AT&T. And thus, from some vantages, the proposed merger might be a good thing.

From the perspective of education, one additional consideration might help push this plan toward the light instead of toward the darkness. That factor, naturally, is yet another complexity of contemporary commerce. Before this merger can be consummated, the two companies need the blessing of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

FCC Commissioner William E. Kennard has said it is not obvious why this proposed merger would benefit consumers. The burden of proof, he said, is on MCI WorldCom and Sprint to show how this proposed move would benefit society.

Memo to telco titans: Kennard is an avid supporter of education and a strong proponent of equal opportunity for America’s youth.

Because of their unique stewardship of the infrastructure of the Information Age, derived in part from public resources, all telecommunications companies have a special responsibility to education and young people. And, in fact, all major telcoes have honored this responsibility to one degree or another.

But wouldn’t now be an especially propitious time for MCI WorldCom and Sprint to underscore their existing commitment to education with bold new initiatives? This might be just the sort of proof Commissioner Kennard is looking for. Doing more to help our schools prepare students for success in the Information Age certainly would be a radiant example of good corporate citizenship, at least in my book.

I’m also tempted to ask them—while they’re busy merging—if they could maybe please consolidate some of the tons of paper that make my multiple telephone bills so mind-boggling. I’m tempted to ask that, but I won’t. It wouldn’t do any good.

Nothing is ever simple.


Government warns parents and educators of ‘page-jacking’ on the internet

The government is warning parents and educators about a new threat on the internet: web sites that nearly duplicate legitimate ones, but whisk children and others into an electronic maze of pornography.

The Federal Trade Commission called the ploy “page-jacking,” describing it recently as the most pernicious example it has discovered in the 100 cases of internet deception it has investigated.

The agency showed how a consumer who tried to visit an internet site about a popular movie, Saving Private Ryan, was sent with no warning to web sites with lurid photographs advertising “barely legal Asian girls.”

When puzzled surfers try to close those browser windows, other windows that open automatically display different pornographic sites.

In extreme cases, those sites also temporarily can disable a web browser’s “back” and “forward” navigation buttons to make it even more difficult to leave them.

“Think about what it would be like if you saw your 7-year-old child looking at this, and she couldn’t turn if off and you couldn’t turn it off,” said Jodie Bernstein, director of the commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The FTC, alleging deception and unfair trade, said it obtained temporary restraining orders in U.S. District Court against Carlos Pereira, believed to be living in Portugal, and Guiseppe Nirta of Australia and his company, WTFRC Ltd.

Allen Asher, deputy chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, confirmed that federal police there served search warrants.

The FTC said that some types of internet filtering software are effective in blocking these pornographic sites, especially software that analyzes text or images from a web page before displaying it.

Here’s how the scheme works:

• A company’s popular web site is digitally copied, including the hidden “meta tags” that help the internet’s search engines categorize its content, and published on different computers.

• A few lines of software code, called Javascript, are hidden within the duplicated web site to immediately redirect visitors elsewhere—often to pornographic sites that pay a few cents for online referrals—and to make it difficult for a person to shut down the browser software or surf elsewhere.

Bernstein recommended that parents and educators consider disabling Java script technology in their web browsers, a procedure that can require about a half-dozen mouse-clicks. But that also prevents legitimate sites from using the technology.

One victim compared page-jacking to opening a family restaurant, then finding an adult bookstore built across the street in an identical building and under the restaurant’s own marquee.

“It’s like some sleazeball has tunneled under your front door and set up a trap door,” said John G. Fischer of Irving, Texas, a lawyer for Adrenaline Vault, a web site that fell victim this spring. Youngsters looking there for details about software games instead found their computer screens filled with pornography.

The FTC said it helped uncover evidence of the scheme using its new internet lab, a suite with eight modern computers and four investigators whose job is to click and protect.

Don Blumenthal, who runs the lab, said the FTC uses a private internet provider as its investigators surf the web to avoid tipping companies that the government, with its familiar “” moniker, is visiting. The agency also is establishing secret eMail accounts for these digital detectives to cloak their online identities.

The FTC has taken a lead role among federal agencies enforcing U.S. laws on the internet, but its unclear how its lawyers and eight new computers will make more than a tiny dent in the fraud on the web, where criminals can organize operations overseas to thwart U.S. laws and can vanish and reappear under different names in a matter of hours.

Federal Trade Commission

Bureau of Consumer Protection


Sun Microsystems introduces sleek newcomputing ‘appliance’ for schools

Sun Microsystems has unveiled an innovative technology that the company claims will make educational computing as user-friendly and reliable as picking up and using a telephone handset.

Like a telephone, the new book-sized Sun Ray 1 enterprise appliance—introduced Sept. 8—is easy-to-use, affordable, and works the instant it’s plugged in, according to Sun. The network computing device lets users access existing applications and resources from anywhere on a local area network via smart-card technology, but the device does not require a desktop operating system or client-based software to run.

Unlike a traditional PC, Sun Ray 1 doesn’t tie the user to a fixed desk or location, the company said. Students moving from classroom to classroom simply insert their smart cards into any Sun Ray appliance to bring up their personal desktop, including homework or lessons in progress. They can then pick up where they left off before.

“With the complexity removed from the desktop, the Sun Ray enterprise appliance lets teachers do what they do best—teach,” said Kim Jones, vice president of global education and research for Sun Microsystems. “Teachers are no longer burdened with the problem of recovering from a crash in the middle of class and backing up each and every desktop in their classrooms.”

Through Sun’s unique, Java-based “Hot Desk” technology, the Sun Ray appliance reads the code on a user’s smart card and communicates it to a Solaris server running Sun Ray enterprise server software. The software then maps a user’s session and runs all applications on the server while projecting an image of the user’s desktop to a monitor attached to the Sun Ray device.

When a user first logs on to the system, he or she creates a “session” that is always running on the server. When the user is interrupted—as at the end of class—all he or she has to do is pull out the smart card. When the card is inserted into any other Sun Ray appliance on the network, the user can continue his session exactly where he left off instantly, with no rebooting required.

“Students cannot load unauthorized programs or games on to the desktop, and even unplugging it mid-session won’t harm schoolwork or files, which makes Sun Ray 1 a truly kid-proof appliance,” Jones said.

Ultra-thin client

Until now, thin-client solutions—in which all applications reside on a server and processing occurs at the server level—have been relatively slow to catch on. But Sun thinks its new Sun Ray device will be different.

Breaking from previous thin-client architectures, the Sun Ray 1 is a true “appliance,” the company said. Unlike PCs and Windows-based terminals, the device runs no application or system code locally and thus requires no configuration or desktop management, no changes to existing applications, never crashes, and never needs upgrading, according to Sun Microsystems.

The Sun Ray’s easy installation makes it easily replaced, Sun added. If a student spills a drink on the device, the network manager can simply unplug and replace it with another without IP addresses or system software to reboot.

In addition, the Hot Desk architecture gives users the ability to access Windows NT or mainframe applications by connecting an NT server with Citrix Metaframe server software to the network. The Citrix client-side software comes bundled with the Sun server.

The Carrollton City School District in Carrollton, Ga., has deployed several Sun Ray 1 enterprise appliances powered by a Sun Enterprise 450 server in its fifth grade classrooms and elementary school media center. Assistant Superintendent of Technology O.P. Cooper told eSchool News he expects the devices will vastly reduce the cost of administration and support.

“Because they are stateless devices, the useful life expectancy of the Sun Ray 1 appliance should be far longer than a typical PC, evidenced by Sun’s offering a 5-year replacement warranty on the appliances,” he said. “The Sun Ray platform will be a great match for schools.”

The Sun Ray 1 enterprise appliance is available for school districts via three special pricing bundles. Starting at $850 per unit, each bundle includes a Sun Enterprise server, StarOffice software, and 20, 50, or 100 Sun Ray 1 enterprise appliances complete with two USB ports, keyboard, mouse, and 17-inch Sony color monitor. Leasing options also are available starting at $13.50 per month per desktop, based on a 5-year lease.

Sun Ray 1


GAO report: One-third of nation’s largest districts won’t be ready for Y2K

A snapshot of the nation’s largest school systems taken by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reveals that many aren’t making the grade when it comes to preparing their technology for the year 2000 (Y2K).

No, this isn’t deja vu. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education did issue a report saying much the same thing about schools at large. But this latest warning is yet another wake-up call, this time to the school districts serving the largest numbers of students.

At the request of Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, chair of the Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, the GAO surveyed the nation’s 25 largest school districts about the status of their Y2K compliance. Results of the survey were released at a special Senate hearing Sept. 21.

The mission-critical systems of nine of the 25 districts will not be Y2K compliant until after Nov. 30, if at all, the report said. Only seven of 25 said their mission-critical systems are Y2K compliant and another nine said they expect their systems to be compliant before Nov. 30.

“Will schools still be able to teach students in a safe environment if they aren’t Y2K ready?” Bennett asked at the hearing. He said the answer is unclear and called on schools to redouble their efforts.

Joel C. Willemssen, director of the GAO’s civil agencies information systems, said the study looked at the 25 districts with the largest student populations, excepting cases where the selection would result in a state being represented more than once.

The GAO surveyed the districts about the compliance of six key business functions: administrative systems (personnel, payroll, financial management); student records; transportation; food service; facilities and embedded systems (fire and security, lighting, telephones); and instructional labs (hardware, networks, application software).

Districts that said their mission-critical systems were Y2K ready were New York City Public Schools, Los Angeles Unified School District, Jefferson County (Kentucky) Public Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Public Schools, Albuquerque Public Schools, Mesa (Ariz.) Unified School District, and Mobile County (Ala.) School District.

Two more districts, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Hawaii Department of Education (which also is a school district), said their mission-critical systems would be ready by the end of September.

Districts reporting that their mission-critical systems wouldn’t be ready by Nov. 30 were Philadelphia City School District, Houston Independent School District, Clark County (Nev.) School District, Prince George’s County (Md.) Public Schools, Memphis City School District, Milwaukee Public Schools, Orleans Parish (La.) School Board, Cleveland City Public Schools, and Granite (Utah) School District.

In addition, nine districts—Puerto Rico Department of Education, Chicago Public Schools, Houston ISD, Clark County School District, Prince George’s County Public Schools, Milwaukee Public Schools, Granite School District, Mesa USD, and Mobile County School District—reported that their instructional labs wouldn’t be compliant until after Jan. 1.

None of these districts referred to their instructional labs as mission-critical systems. Several reported that instructional software would be used until Jan. 1, and whatever doesn’t function at that time will be discarded.

Of the 25 districts, only 15 reported having contingency plans in development. Ten of those 15 reported that their contingency plans were completed and five said their plans had been tested.

The road ahead

Some of the districts admitting they wouldn’t be Y2K compliant until after Nov. 30 have their work cut out for them. In the Cleveland Public Schools, for example, only 10 percent of the instructional systems and 40 percent of the food service systems are Y2K ready.

Granite School District in Sen. Bennett’s own state, meanwhile, reported that its administrative systems are Y2K compliant now, but several other systems are not—and some won’t make the Jan. 1 deadline.

Granite officials reported that systems controlling student records and maintenance of facilities should be compliant by next month. They said systems affecting student transportation should be compliant in November.

But systems affecting instructional labs won’t be Y2K compliant until June, six months late, and those affecting food service won’t be compliant until Jan. 2001.

Dale Roberts, the district’s director of information systems, said that dates on computers will be turned back and other modifications will be made to keep them operating past January.

“Kids will still get meals,” he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Education (ED), the GAO survey results are typical of school districts nationwide.

Earlier this year, ED surveyed 16,000 school districts on Y2K compliance, but only 3,500 responded. And only 28 percent of respondents said their mission-critical systems are now Y2K compliant.

The Y2K problem exists because older computer systems stored only two digits of the four-digit year. When the year 2000 comes, many computers could misinterpret that as 1900, causing systems to crash or misinterpret data.


Group unveils plan for international web site rating system

While Congress debates whether to require U.S. schools to install filters on their computers to block children’s access to inappropriate web sites, a movement is underway to devise a global system for rating and filtering internet content worldwide.

An international summit held in Munich, Germany, Sept. 9-11, drew more than 300 policymakers, corporate executives, and experts from the fields of law and technology to discuss the initiative. The three-day summit was sponsored by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a non-profit social policy organization based in Germany.

At the summit, the Bertelsmann Foundation presented its “Memorandum on Self-Regulation of Internet Content,” a controversial document containing practical recommendations for governments, industry, and users to work together in developing a new culture of responsibility to protect children on the internet.

Jack M. Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School and one of the chief architects of the proposal, told the New York Times he believes that internet filters ultimately are inevitable. “The question then becomes, what is the best design for a filter so that it preserves civil liberties?” he said.

The challenge facing the initiative, Balkin said, is to find a way to control what children have access to on the internet, without resorting to strict government regulations. Mark Wossner, chairman of the Bertelsmann Foundation, explained, “The internet is a medium of free expression and has to remain just that, even if safeguards for youth protection and against illegal content need to be provided.”

The summit comes in the wake of a survey conducted in June by the Allensbach Institute of Opinion Research. According to the survey, which included respondents from the United States, Australia, and Germany, a large majority (79 percent of Americans and 86 percent of Germans) believe the internet needs some form of policing.

The survey found significant cultural differences on the subject of internet regulation, though. For example, while 43 percent of Americans said they’d want nudity blocked on their computers, only 13 percent of Germans agreed. Considering Germany’s history with hate crimes and racial violence, it’s not surprising that 58 percent of Germans expressed a desire to block radical political messages online—but only 26 percent of Americans, who traditionally uphold freedom of speech, wanted these types of messages blocked.

Supporters of the international plan believe that contrasting attitudes about what should be blocked shows a need for a system that can be adjusted so parents and educators are the ones who create the restrictions—not software makers, governments, or interest groups.

Three-layer model

The model for self-regulation proposed by the Bertelsmann Foundation has three components, according to Balkin. First, web site operators worldwide would voluntarily describe their site using categories such as nudity or violence, at various levels of intensity.

Second, regulators and interest groups—including school districts—would create templates to filter sites according to their content ratings. For example, an internet user could select the Moral Majority template, which would filter out content that is not approved by members of that association.

Third, the system is fine-tuned as groups release so-called “white lists” of acceptable sites which may have been inadvertently filtered out in the second phase. For example, a legitimate news site may have been filtered out for “violent content.”

According to Balkin, this three-layer model would combine the use of technology by end users with a choice at the local level of what to filter, giving parents and educators control over the material viewed by children according to the templates they use.

For such a system to work, Balkin said, it must: (1) have the capacity for organic growth; (2) be transparent—that is, it should communicate where on the system, and why, a particular site was blocked; and (3) be compatible with different ratings systems. But critics of the plan point to several holes that will need to be filled before it ever is adopted.

One problem is, who will do the rating? Leaving it up to site operators themselves would be irresponsible; but giving responsibility to a third-party organization would be too expensive and would generate its own set of problems. Balkin believes the solution will combine both approaches, but how remains a question.

Another problem is how to deal with web site operators who refuse to participate in the voluntary rating. Would their sites automatically be blocked by the technology—and, if so, would this have a stifling effect on free speech, contrary to the plan’s intent?

David Sobel, general council for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, worries that an international rating system will encourage abuse: “It’s likely that some governments will mandate the use of a rating system. We think it will have a detrimental effect on the internet, making it more like TV, where certain issues are emphasized and others are marginalized.”

Bertelsmann Foundation

Electronic Privacy Information Center


Special Focus: Computerized Testing: Web-based service lets kids practice taking state ‘standards of learning’ tests

Now students can practice online before taking those increasingly important state-mandated “standards of learning” tests.

Edutest, a company based in Fairfax, Va., has developed online practice tests that let K-12 students expand their test-taking prowess before facing the real thing. So far, Edutest has programs that correspond to tests in Virginia, California, and Florida, and the company currently is developing tests for Ohio students, among others.

Edutest says that practice tests for other states will be added to its web site according to public demand, but the company expects to have all 50 states represented online within two years.

Until then, parents, teachers, and administrators can apply the current testing models to their children, as there tends to be a lot of overlap in the types of information kids are tested on, according to Steven Hoy, vice president of sales and marketing at Edutest.

“If you’re looking to attain an assessment of your student and a detailed breakdown of their skills, the programs we already have will do that,” said Hoy.

Edutest isn’t the only organization to make sample questions from state tests available over the internet. The web site for the nonprofit Texas Business and Education Coalition, for example, features thousands of questions modeled after those in the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), an annual examination taken by most third- to eighth-grade students in Texas public schools.

But Edutest may be the first for-profit company to offer this type of service to schools and students nationwide.

Because all states receive government funding to conduct their standards testing, they all have certain basic skills which must be addressed at certain grade levels, Hoy said.

Using these basic testing standards as a starting point, Edutest develops its own sample test items in accordance with the requirements of each state. “We have experts develop our questions for us,” Hoy said. “We don’t purchase test content from other testing companies.”

Edutest does not work with individual state departments of education because state organizations cannot specifically endorse any commercial product and the state exams are highly confidential to avoid any cheating. However, many states do post blueprints—like those outlined in the Goals 2000 program—which can be used for test development, according to Hoy.

Susan Hardwicke, president and CEO of Edutest added, “We used Goals 2000 as a springboard. All 50 states are required to develop criteria for students’ testing, which we can then use.”

Once Edutest has created a preliminary practice test, it is sent out to students and educators for beta testing. Developers encourage those trying out the tests to provide them with feedback on content.

One benefit to using the Edutest web site in preparation for state standards testing is that the assessments are updated regularly, Hoy said. Since they are always changing, students can practice on a different test each time they log on to the site. “That’s the benefit of having a program like this on the internet: this way, students have access to continuous fresh content,” Hoy said.

The Edutest product is sold to individual teachers, schools, or entire districts, in addition to the at-home product. A single teacher can purchase a site license for one year at a rate of $19.95, or an individual school can purchase a license for $29.95. Districts receive a discount if they buy for all their schools and are only charged $24.95 per school, per year.

For these fees, users receive unlimited usage and access to the site for a year. Students who take the practice assessments receive immediate test scores, and their input is aggregated overnight and final class reports are posted online the next day. The service also allows for performance charting of students.

Teachers are encouraged to schedule students’ assessments ahead of time, and each student subsequently logs on, takes the test, and receives an immediate score.

“Edutest was created out of the need to help educators understand how their students are doing in real time,” explained Hoy. “With paper and pencil testing, everything is very secretive, and you can’t go back over the test. You don’t get results until it is too late to do anything about them.”

Hardwicke added, “When I had two children in public schools, I would get their report cards and it always seemed the information I received was really late and not useful at all. With our system, students’ progress can be tracked from kindergarten to graduation. Although test scores aren’t the only indicator of progress, they are certainly a significant one.”

Hardwicke also told eSchool News that the company has plans for several strategic product enhancements in the future, including the addition of more diagnostics. “These improvements will be able to tell a student why an answer is incorrect, and students will actually be able to select levels of feedback.”

Hardwicke concluded, “I believe the internet is changing how we educate, and how students think. We want to keep pace with how students actually learn.”


Texas Business and Education Coalition


Special Focus: Computerized Testing: Study shows tech-savvy students might benefit more from computer-administered exams

A new study conducted by researchers at Boston College suggests that scores on tests taken with paper and pencil might substantially underestimate the achievement of students who are accustomed to working on computers.

The study compared how students with varying levels of computer skills take open-ended tests on computers and on paper. Language arts, math, and science tests were administered to sample groups of eighth-graders to determine whether students tended to do better on computerized tests or using traditional paper and pencil methods.

The study, titled “Testing on Computers: A Follow-Up Study Comparing Performance On Computer and On Paper,” was conducted by Mike Russell and Walt Haney of Boston College’s Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy.

Russell and Haney drew a sample group of students from two Worcester, Mass., middle schools. Only students who had taken the seventh-grade SAT 9 standardized test were studied, so researchers had an indicator of prior achievement on which to base the results of their study.

The students were assigned to two groups. One group took the language arts and math sections of the test, and the other group took the language arts and science sections. The two groups were further subdivided so that half of each group was tested on the language arts section by computer, and half on the other section by computer.

Students participating in the study were required to fill out a questionnaire on prior computer use and take a keyboarding test. They were given the open-ended test with a limited amount of time to complete both the computerized section and the pencil and paper section.

The tests Russell and Haney used were fairly standard, and scoring guidelines were developed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. All written test results were transferred exactly as written to typeface, so that handwriting would have no effect on the scoring.

The results of the study suggested that students who demonstrate computer competency (here defined as keying around 20 words per minute) do much better on open-ended language arts tests when they are given on a computer than when given on paper.

However, if the keyboarder was slower, using a computer for an open-ended language arts test adversely affected his or her performance.

Interestingly, math scores were lower when students used computers than when they used a pencil and paper. This is not surprising, since students trying to solve math problems would run into frequent formatting problems when trying to use a computer for their calculations, Russell said.

“As far as I see it, these results leave us with three options,” Russell said. “First, you can try to administer everything by computer, but that is not practical and not fair to some students. Second, we could use the old method, but we already don’t use computers enough to prepare kids. That’s not a good option. Or third, we can take state test scores less seriously, until we can allow for letting kids choose how they want to be tested.”

In the study, Russell concludes that educators should “exercise caution when drawing inferences about students based on open-ended test scores when the medium of assessment does not match their medium of learning.”

Boston College’s Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy

“Testing on Computers” study