Schools try giving SAT via computer

High school students in Darien, Conn., and 12 other communities are taking part in a potentially groundbreaking pilot program, using computers to take a college admissions test previously administered by old-fashioned pencil-and-paper methods.

Twenty Darien High School juniors took the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) on Jan. 27, but they didn’t have to worry about bringing their sharpened No. 2 pencils to fill in the little ovals on their score sheets.

The pilot program will help the College Board, which administers the SAT, to determine the feasibility of offering a computerized test to all students. The students’ scores on the pilot computer test won’t count on their records.

“Unless there’s some sort of breakthrough in technology, it’s at least five or maybe 10 years before large numbers of students use computers to take the SAT,” said Brian O’Reilly, executive director of the College Board’s SAT program.

Even so, the College Board acknowledges that computer-based administration of the SAT is inevitable some day. The pilot aims to identify what challenges this would create.

“The pilot will try to look at what problems there would be if high schools gave the test on computers,” O’Reilly said. “What is the feasibility? What are the issues?”

The computer-based SAT is all mouse-driven. “There are no keystrokes, and the kids don’t have to know how to word process or anything. They just click on the ellipse that corresponds with the correct answer,” said Jerry Seen, director of guidance for grades six to 12 at Darien Public Schools.

The test administered at Darien also included a tutorial portion showing kids how to use the mouse.

Advantages of computerized SATs

One advantage the computerized SAT has over the pencil-and-paper version is the instant calculation of students’ scores, Seen said.

“The most important advantage to computerized testing is that it keeps students from pacing in front of the mailbox. This way, you know your score before you walk out the door,” he said.

But there are other advantages to computerizing the SAT, Seen said.

“When a student comes in and logs on, [he or she] can begin right away. When breaks come, normally everyone has to sit there and wait for the next section to begin–but this way, if a child is ready to move on, [he or she] can do so,” he said. “Web-based testing means you’re not tied down to the momentum of standardized testing.”

Seen also believes that a computer-administered test may cut down on accidental errors.

“With a computer, you can’t bubble in the wrong section, because you only have one question at a time. And misnumbering can’t happen, either, because only one section is present at a time,” he said.

The computerized test gives students an option to put a check mark next to questions they intend to go back to, and it provides students with an on-screen calculator.

“You can also check the time still available,” Seen said. “There’s a countdown timer in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, but if a student is distracted by that, it can be hidden.”

Less complication may be better for kids’ test-taking morale, school officials believe. “There is less angst and grief, because it is very difficult to mess this up. There’s no paper, so nothing can be lost, and kids can’t walk out with booklets on accident,” said Seen.

Computerized testing could open up a lot of possibilities for adapting tests to kids with learning disabilities and different learning styles, he added.

“Audio learners could take the test with headphones on, and we could use larger-print texts for student with sight problems,” he said. “Also, some kids get additional time on the SAT because of learning disabilities, and with the computerized version [this extra time] can be programmed right in. Right now, the proctor has to keep track of all that.”

Security concerns and other challenges

Though many administrators worry about the increased chance of cheating with computerized tests, Seen believes that computerized testing will not make cheating any easier, assuming the computers in test rooms are placed strategically.

“The way our test room is arranged, you’d have to stand right behind someone to see what they were doing,” he said. “We have a high-tech lab with the computer screens embedded in the desks, so you have to look down through the glass panel to view the monitor.”

According to Seen, there is also little chance of students sneaking back to work on a previous section of the test. Currently, proctors have to walk around and make sure students are working on the section they are supposed to be. With a computerized test, once the computer times out on a section, there’s no going back.

The pilot test at Darien was delivered on a diskette, but O’Reilly said the College Board has not ruled out web-based delivery.

Both educators and test administrators admit the web-based transfer of delicate information raises serious security concerns, however.

“I’m told there are ways to effectively safeguard against hacking; encryption and firewalls, things like that,” said O’Reilly. “Clearly, security is a concern for us. As the administrators of the test, we have an obligation to protect our intellectual capital.”

But, he added, “It is almost a moot point, because if you make the size of the pool of test questions large enough, even if you had access to the pool, you still wouldn’t know which of the thousands of questions would be randomly selected for your test.”

Another key issue is whether high schools have enough computers to administer the test.

Darien High School has only 20 computers in its technology lab, Seen said. “That’s certainly not optimal testing conditions, since a large test may have 300 to 400 students being tested at one time,” he said.

Districts must use relatively high-powered computers to administer the test, but Seen doesn’t think the technology requirements would be prohibitive. “You need a fairly modern computer to do this, but you don’t need a 500- or 600-megahertz computer or anything like that,” he said.

But, Seen acknowledged, there are still problems that must be overcome before the paradigm shift can occur.

“Honestly, I think the new thought might be to abandon the mass-testing approach altogether,” he said. That way, test-takers could sign up for the test and take it when they felt ready. “It could really reduce long lines and nervous kids,” he said.

Despite the possibilities for computerizing the SAT, the College Board believes it will be years before the program becomes completely electronic.

“It’s not the technology end that we are worried about, it’s the practical considerations involved with changing a test taken by 2.5 million students per year,” O’Reilly said.

Feedback from the pilot

Student comments at Darien High School indicated that the pilot was mostly a success.

“Of the students who’ve taken this so far, I think 75 [percent] or 80 percent have said they prefer this to a paper-and-pencil test,” Seen said. “The only complaints we received were about not being able to doodle in the test booklet. With some geometry problems, kids like to draw on the booklets, and with the computerized test they have to reproduce the problem onto scrap paper to do that.”

O’Reilly believes that computer technology could allow test administrators to ask questions that are more open-ended.

“Right now, to score essay questions, you have to fly a group of teachers to a central spot, get them rooms, and have them all sit down to go over the essays,” he said. “Theoretically, if a student composed an essay electronically, it could immediately be sent to the scorer, and that person could very quickly score the essay at a much-reduced cost.”

Seen believes a computerized SAT would be a boon for schools “because we’re talking about a whole generation of kids who’ve grown up in front of a computer screen. They are comfortable there, and there is less regimentation with the computerized test.”

Besides Darien High School, schools in California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia have participated or were scheduled to participate in the pilot by March 3.

Links:

The College Board
http://www.collegeboard.com

Darien Public Schools
http://www.darien.k12.ct.us

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Fingerprint technology speeds school lunch lines

Some Pennsylvania schools are testing a fingerprinting program that lets pupils pay for chicken nuggets, sloppy joes, pizza, and other cafeteria delicacies without ever carrying cash.

If the program proves successful, the little ridges on index fingers eventually could make school lunch money and lunch-line bullies things of the past.

“It’s certainly a lot faster,” said Linda Kelly, cafeteria manager at Welsh Valley Middle School, about 10 miles from Philadelphia.

The program doesn’t use a complete fingerprint; instead, it relies on a computer program to match 27 mapped points on a finger. Even so, the technology remains controversial.

The Penn Cambria School District, about 75 miles east of Pittsburgh, began the program in August 1999 and plans to use it in all five of its schools by next year. To avoid controversy, administrators never used the word “fingerprint.”

“We say ‘finger-image’ or ‘finger-picture,'” said Milton Miller, Penn Cambria’s director of food services.

The program has sped up the high school lunch line, which has been growing with the student population.

The other benefits? “One, no lost [ID] cards; two, no one can access another person’s account with a lost PIN number; three, it’s good for the parents. The money is in the account, and they know that the money is only being spent on school lunches,” Miller said.

Another advantage of the program, which also is used in the Tussey Mountain School District in central Pennsylvania, is that students who receive free and reduced-price lunches aren’t embarrassed by having their names checked off a list or by turning in lunch tickets while their classmates pay cash in cafeteria lines.

“At 16 years old, the last thing you want to be known as is poor,” said Mitch Johnson, president of Food Service Solutions, the Altoona-based firm that installed the program. To the best of his knowledge, he said, the system is unique to Pennsylvania.

Johnson said the program, which will cost between $4,000 and $5,000 per lunch lane, was developed to help schools comply with a federal law that says schools can’t overtly identify those receiving free and reduced-price lunches.

“That’s one of the biggest benefits,” said David Magill, the Lower Merion School District superintendent. “They won’t be stigmatized.”

His growing district just wants to find the most efficient system that will get a couple of hundred children through lunch lines in 40 minutes with time to eat, Magill said.

“What we’re really looking for is the system that works the best,” he said. Because the program is in the testing phase, the district is not paying for it.

Some cafeteria customers still have doubts about whether fingerprinting is the right program.

Ian Murry, 13, bypassed the fingerprint system and went straight for his wallet during lunch at Welsh Valley Middle School. “I don’t like it,” Murry said. “It doesn’t always work. Then the line gets slower.”

Tawanda Worthy, on the other hand, said she approved of the program, new at her school this year. “You don’t have to bring lunch money, so somebody can’t take it,” she said.

So far, a minority of the middle school’s 700 children have declined to be fingerprinted. “They think the FBI’s going to get them or something,” said Kelly, the cafeteria manager.

Magill said he hasn’t heard any negative input from parents regarding the program. He knows fingerprinting children could raise a few eyebrows, however, and he rejects Orwellian theories.

“We’re not using fingerprints for anything other than a quick way of identifying the student in the cafeteria line,” he said.

In Michigan, privacy concerns have made it against the law for schools to use electronic fingerprinting.

Citing a 1985 law called the Child Identification and Protection Act, Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm ruled Dec. 12 that school districts in Michigan can’t use electronic fingerprinting technology to identify a child for school-related purposes.

Granholm’s ruling came in response to a query from state Sen. Ken Sikkema, who said a constituent of his was interested in the finger-imaging technology and asked if it were allowed in schools.

Links

Penn Cambria School District
http://www.pcam.org

Food Service Solutions
http://www.foodserve.com

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AFT releases standard for online learning

A new report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) recommends a broad set of guidelines for ensuring successful instructional outcomes in the evolving realm of online education.

The report, released Jan. 17, outlines a set of “quality standards” for distance education programs at the college level. It calls for, among other things, clear standards for content, technical support and counseling for students, protection of intellectual property rights, and proper training for faculty.

But AFT officials believe the standards can–and should–apply to online programs at the K-12 level as well.

“Distance Learning Guidelines for Good Practice” is based on a survey of AFT members who teach distance-learning classes, as well as previous studies by the union and a resolution at AFT’s last convention. The report includes the following recommendations, among others:

Distance-education students should be given advance information about course requirements, equipment needs, and techniques for succeeding in a distance-learning environment, as well as technical training and support throughout the course.

Close personal interaction should be maintained among students and teachers.

Equivalent library materials and research opportunities should be made available to distance-education students.

Assessment of student knowledge, skills, and performance should be as rigorous as in classroom-based courses.

Academic counseling and advising should be available in distance education to the same extent that it is for students in more-traditional environments.

Faculty should shape, approve, and evaluate distance-education classes. Faculty members need to be adequately compensated and provided with the necessary time, training, and technical support to develop and conduct online classes.

Full undergraduate degree programs (and, presumably, full elementary or secondary school programs) also should include classroom-based coursework, with exceptions made for students who are truly unable to come to classes, for whatever reason.

According to AFT spokesman Jamie Horwitz, “Distance Education Guidelines for Good Practice” is the result of member cooperation and outside research at the AFT.

Four years ago, the group commissioned a research project on distance education from the Institute for Higher Education Policy at the request of AFT members who wanted to learn more about the subject.

“Essentially, we wanted to look at distance learning in a very open-minded way, and what we found was that there was a dearth of research available,” Horwitz said.

The study found that some classes lend themselves to distance education more easily than others, he said. The AFT resolved to provide some guidelines to help educators successfully implement online learning programs.

“While online and distance learning are, in general, good options for taking a particular course or set of courses, this does not automatically mean that it is acceptable for an entire undergraduate degree program to have no in-class component,” said AFT President Sandra Feldman.

And this goes for the K-12 level, too, Horwitz said.

“Higher education foreshadows what may come along in K-12. Our members still advocate some in-person education at the undergraduate level, and I think they would feel even more strongly about the necessity of that for K-12 [education],” he said. “We believe the lower [in grade level] you go, the more you need real human interaction.”

The AFT tempers its praise for distance education with some real-life concerns about the benefits of educational programs offered entirely online. Large-scale, all-online K-12 institutions–such as the newly announced K12 Online School, led by conservative William Bennett–may not be right for every student, officials said.

“Is it really good to take a chemistry class, like the one that Bennett plans to offer, with animated beakers and Bunsen burners?” asked Horwitz. “A class where the students never smell the sulfur, conduct hands-on experiments, or learn about the importance of safety conditions in a lab? It just seems unrealistic.”

Only certain types of learners will prove successful with internet-based learning, Horwitz said: “It’s good for self-motivated learners, but most students have a real need for a personal connection.”

Educators who run online programs at the K-12 level generally agreed with the AFT’s recommendations.

“Overall, these are things that we value at my institution,” said Kathi Baldwin, educational technologist for the SeeUonline virtual school in Palmer, Alaska. “We definitely value student-teacher relationships, but we know that online education is not for every student. It can be good for some students and horrible for others.”

But Baldwin took exception to the implication that online simulations can’t provide a comparable experience for some students.

“I’d put a large caution on saying any class has to do this or has to do that,” she said. “To me, the real test of a good distance learning program is this: Is it as good, or better, than what I can take face to face?”

Links:

Distance Education Guidelines for Good Practice
http://www.aft.org/higher_ed/technology

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The landscape is changing for technology grant seekers

It’s the first few weeks of the new administration and everyone is wondering what changes the Bush administration will bring. As a grant writer, I am wondering how the federal and state funding landscape will change. Will there be new initiatives, an emphasis on new areas, or the demise of programs we became accustomed to the last eight years?

Here are some of my thoughts about what we may see, based solely on what I have read so far about President George W. Bush’s plans for education and conversations I have had with colleagues in the past few weeks. (Don’t be under the impression that I have “inside” information from the Beltway!)

In the education plan that Bush released in January, he proposed establishing a $3 billion technology fund. However, this fund would be a consolidation of eRate funds along with eight Department of Education technology programs that are part of Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. States and schools would have flexibility in using the technology funds for teacher training, software purchase and development, and systems integration.

What could this consolidation mean? From a grant-seeking perspective, it could mean fewer proposals to submit–a welcome change for many districts that do not have a grant writer on staff. The consolidation of programs may result in block grants, where schools would submit one application requesting funds and indicate which particular programs they want to be considered for (similar to the Community Development Block Grant program).

Although this could simplify the application process immensely, it might also mean a reduction in funding. States would have the authority, through block granting, to realign funding–and this does not necessarily mean that levels would remain the same as they were before the block grants were instituted. Some of my colleagues fear a significant reduction in eRate funds or, in the worst-case scenario, the elimination of funds. The same also could be said for any one of the technology programs in the Department of Education that are selected for consolidation.

Ultimately, what could occur is an increase in applications for the block grants (because of the simplification of the process), combined with less money being available. The result could be an even higher degree of competition for dollars than already exists. As grant seekers, we can do our part by lobbying our state and federal representatives to preserve funding levels for technology-related programs.

Will there be a shift in priority areas for education funding? According to Education Secretary Rod Paige (Education Week, January 17), “Core agenda items of the Bush administration include imposing new accountability demands on states and schools, providing more local control of federal funds, increasing parental choice, raising child literacy rates, improving school safety, and closing the achievement gaps between students of different family backgrounds.”

Some of these areas are not new. But the Bush plan is marked by an increased emphasis on reading, especially at an early age. One of President Bush’s campaign proposals was to establish a new $5 billion initiative to ensure that all students learn to read by the third grade, with an emphasis on disadvantaged children. Participating states in the initiative would be required to include phonics-based instruction in their programs, train K-2 teachers in reading preparation, and test students in reading in grades three through eight.

Note, also, that Bush would like to move the Head Start preschool program to the Department of Education from the Department of Health and Human Services. In the Education Week article, Secretary Paige stated, “I do not feel that the broad range of services by Head Start should be discontinued, but early education, especially reading, should become the centerpiece.”

An increase in accountability could result in increased student testing, which Bush strongly advocates, and an increased emphasis on the program-evaluation components of grant-funded projects. Reviewers may be looking for significant levels of testing of students to support an applicant’s assertion that his or her project will increase student achievement.

In addition, applicants may be asked more frequently to select research-based solutions to problems and to include the data that show the impact of these solutions on student learning. Vendors of software solutions should be collecting data showing their products’ impact beyond the testimonials of classroom teachers, because future grant seekers will be requesting this type of information from them.

Of course, these are only observations based on the few details we have of the Bush plan so far. I’d welcome any comments from readers who might disagree.

Whatever changes will occur under the new administration, they are unlikely to affect the current funding cycle for federal grant programs. But savvy grant seekers should keep an eye on future developments that could result in a whole new grant-seeking landscape next year.

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VISION brings eLearning to Oklahoma schools

Oklahoma education officials on Jan. 22 announced a pilot program to create a sophisticated “virtual network” of courses and services available via the internet to schools, libraries, and homes throughout the state.

The Virtual Internet School in Oklahoma Network (VISION) program, expected to launch before the end of March, will include an online curriculum that will offer algebra and other math courses for students in the fourth and seventh grades at nine pilot schools. If the program is successful, other subjects would be made available statewide.

“One of our greatest difficulties in Oklahoma is having equal access to education,” State Superintendent Sandy Garrett said during a presentation to administrators, legislators, and corporate partners. “From the smallest, most remote schools to the urban, inner-city schools, this [project] will ensure equal opportunity.”

But Garrett said VISION encompasses far more than just distance learning. “What we’re really talking about is a total managed learning system,” she said.

The project will contain a relational database that tracks all aspects of learning, from student records to human resources information. It also will include an eBusiness component that tracks costs and expenditures and allows for online purchasing and accounting.

The pilot program is expected to be implemented within 18 months, said Garrett.

Legislators approved the program last year. Since then, state education officials have been working with administrators, teachers, and corporate partners to figure out how to implement the program.

Corporate partners include Intel Corp., JES & Co., Microsoft, Dell Computer, SAP, and Ignite!, an Austin, Texas-based company run by Neil Bush, a younger brother of President George W. Bush.

Dell is providing servers for the project, while Intel is providing support for the servers and some hardware. Garrett said SAP will be the primary software provider.

Oklahoma City’s Western Heights is one of the nine school districts involved in the pilot. Western Heights Superintendent Joe Kitchens said the program’s online curriculum will include high-quality video streaming, along with two-way videoconferencing and traditional text and graphics. The online courses could be offered as stand-alone lessons or as a supplement to classroom instruction.

“It reaches the students when, where, and how they need to be reached. Some students are visual learners. Some are auditory learners. This can play to their strengths,” Kitchens said.

To take advantage of the technology, schools will need a T-1 or DS-3 (45-megabit) connection. Many Oklahoma schools already have the necessary degree of connectivity thanks to the state’s Onenet project, initiated in 1993 to upgrade the state’s technology capabilities.

The nine pilot districts and eight other districts also have formed a cooperative in hopes of qualifying for $20 million in eRate discounts to make additional infrastructure improvements next year.

The project’s eBusiness component would enable districts to integrate academics with management in a way not previously possible, Garrett said. It would help schools better manage their money, through the use of student and management data to identify which academic programs work best and most efficiently.

Such a system also would allow districts to submit their financial data to the state Education Department electronically.

Chief state school officers from Kansas, Texas, Pennsylvania, Maine, Virginia, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were invited to a technical briefing at the Oklahoma State Capitol to hear the details of the project. The school leaders were chosen for participation because their states have similar or related projects.

Links

Oklahoma State Department of Education
http://sde.state.ok.us

Western Heights School District
http://www.westernheights.k12.ok.us

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Tech firms chip in millions for after-school programs

Realizing the burden of education is not just the responsibility of school systems, some large technology companies–including Microsoft and Intel–are spending millions of dollars on after-school programs to augment the technology education that schools provide to better prepare kids for 21st-century careers.

Intel Corp. is spending $20 million during the next five years to build 100 Intel Computer Clubhouses in after-school programs across the country and around the world. Adobe Systems Inc., Macromedia, Hewlett-Packard Co., and Autodesk Inc. have joined Intel in this effort by committing a combined $10 million in high-speed networking equipment, software, hardware, and services.

Also, the Lego Co. is donating Mindstorms kits to all 100 clubhouses, so kids can build robots and other interactive constructions, and Haworth Inc. will provide discounts on furniture.

“Intel, Adobe, and others recognize we can’t put the responsibility on schools alone,” said Gail Breslow, director of the Intel Computer Clubhouse based in Boston’s Museum of Science. “The school day is only a small part of a student’s day.”

The Intel clubhouses are intended to be after-school “invention workshops,” where students eight to 18 can express themselves through computer-based projects and learn valuable skills at the same time. They can create computer-generated art, music, and video; build robots; develop their own web pages; and program their own computer games.

“Schools have a lot of magical moments, but the Computer Clubhouse is about seeing those magical moments replicated a thousand times a day,” Breslow said. The computers are arranged in clusters, the chairs are on wheels, the lighting is subdued like in an artist’s studio, and walls are filled with student artwork to inspire other kids.

The clubhouses are self-motivated environments. “[Students are] there because they want to be there,” Breslow said. “We’re really seeing young people at their best, where young people and adults are working together.”

The driving force for these clubhouses is concern about not only the skill level of the 21st-century workforce, but also its diversity.

“We need programs that help young people achieve,” said Rosalind Hudnell, worldwide community education manager for Intel Computer Clubhouses. “From our standpoint, it’s really important that all young people are developing themselves in technology.”

Kids who participate in these kinds of programs are more apt to finish school, go on to college, and enter into technology jobs, Hudnell said.

“We all recognize the need,” she said. “If we don’t collaborate and increase that pool [of technology workers], we are all going to suffer.”

Microsoft Corp. is another tech giant that sees value in after-school programs. In December, Microsoft donated $100 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

“It’s a great time to be a kid,” Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told youngsters in the gymnasium of a Harlem Boys & Girls Club. “Working together, Microsoft and the Boys & Girls Clubs are committed to bridging the digital divide and providing all our children with the technology skills to succeed.”

Gates said his company’s donation of $88 million in software and $12.3 million in cash during the next five years will bring technology access and programs to more than 3.3 million children through the Boys & Girls Clubs across the country.

Companies that are donating money and equipment to create after-school technology programs may be following the lead of the federal government, which has made after-school programs a recent priority. The federal budget for fiscal 2001 includes $846 million for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which is accepting new proposals through March 30.

Schools can use these funds to provide after-hours technology education, as well as tutoring and homework help, college prep activities, enrichment through the arts, drug- and violence-prevention counseling, and supervised recreational opportunities.

Links:

Intel Computer Clubhouses
http://www.intel.com/education/icc

Boys & Girls Clubs of America
http://www.bgca.org

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
http://www.gatesfoundation.org

21st Century Community Learning Centers
http://www.ed.gov/21stcclc

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Bush plan to overhaul eRate divides educators

A controversial plan to combine the $2.25 billion eRate and nine other school technology programs into a single block grant is one of a handful of key proposals by President George W. Bush that has divided many policy makers and educators.

In his education plan, which he unveiled Jan. 23, Bush called for a consolidation of “duplicative” school technology programs–including the eRate–into a single block grant. The grant would be administered to schools by formula to help streamline the current federal application process.

Many school leaders who spoke with eSchool News said they welcomed this approach, because they believed it would free them from the burdensome red tape that accompanies the eRate. But education groups and some politicians oppose Bush’s plan to overhaul the eRate, which provides discounts on telecommunications services for eligible schools and libraries and is administered under the Federal Communication Commission’s Schools and Libraries program.

“President Bush’s proposal to convert the eRate into a block grant program with other Department of Education technology programs would be a grave mistake. This would be a major step backward, and I will fight it aggressively,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, which represents more than 95,000 school board members who govern the nation’s public schools, shared Rockfeller’s view.

“Because of the rapid changes in education technology today, we are concerned that the proposed reconfiguration of the eRate program may erode school districts’ ability to effectively use these funds,” Bryant said.

Details of the plan

Bush’s education plan, entitled “No Child Left Behind,” not only aims to consolidate overlapping and duplicative grant programs; it also promises to increase accountability for student performance by requiring yearly testing, focus on what works by stressing research-based practices, and empower parents by giving them vouchers.

“Although education is primarily a state and local responsibility, the federal government is partly at fault for tolerating these abysmal results. The federal government currently does not do enough to reward success and sanction failure in our education system,” the proposal stated.

“Over the years, Congress has created hundreds of programs intended to address problems in education without asking whether or not the programs produce results or knowing their impact on local needs. This ‘program for every problem’ solution has begun to add up–so much so that there are hundreds of education programs spread across 39 federal agencies at a cost of $120 billion a year.”

Bush’s plan–which is more like an outline, since it lacks specific details and a budget–provides a general vision for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is set to be reauthorized this year. Unlike the current version of the act, which is divided into 10 broad-based themes, or “titles,” Bush’s plan outlines seven titles.

Under Bush’s plan, technology literacy and school safety would be combined into a single new title, called Title V: Encouraging Safe Schools for the 21st Century. This title would replace the current Title III technology programs with a single block grant, which also would encompass eRate funding.

By administering eRate funds by formula, Bush’s proposal aims to eliminate the burdensome paperwork required by the current application process. The funds would be targeted to high-need schools, including rural schools and schools serving high percentages of low-income students.

Schools reportedly would have the flexibility to use the funds for purposes that include software purchases and development, wiring and technology infrastructure, and teacher training in the use of technology.

The funds also could be used to buy internet filters in support of the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000, which–if upheld–will mandate the use of internet filters in all schools and libraries that receive eRate funding.

To make sure this money enhances education, states would be encouraged to set performance goals to measure how federal technology funds are being used to improve student achievement. States and school districts would risk losing federal funds if they failed to meet these performance goals.

Title V of Bush’s plan also would offer matching grants to establish community technology centers in high-poverty areas. These grants would be provided through the Community Development Block Grant Program, which is administered now by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The proposals Bush unveiled Jan. 23 are only part of his agenda for education reform. The president said he would issue more specific details of his plan in the next few months.

Causes for concern

Although NSBA’s Bryant said Bush’s plan has many appealing features, some of his proposals raise questions and are causes for concern.

“The plan announced by the president is only an outline, so our overall evaluation really depends on the details and the level of funding proposed,” Bryant said. But “focusing on block grants controlled by governors will only fuel a different bureaucracy and may not give local school districts the resources or flexibility they need.”

As it exists now, the eRate is written into the Telecommunications Act of 1996. According to Rockefeller, the eRate–which offers discounts to all public and private schools and libraries for telecommunications services, internet access, and the internal wiring necessary to connect classrooms to the internet–is a successful program with bipartisan support.

“Under the Bush block grant approach, local schools would have less flexibility, not more,” he said. “Private and parochial schools would have to negotiate with state education agencies and worry about entanglements of federal regulations. Most important, the secure funding for the eRate and investments in technology would be jeopardized,” because the program would be subject to the annual appropriations process in Congress.

A step in the right direction?

Proponents of Bush’s plan say schools could see tremendous benefit from his proposal to streamline the administrative requirements of existing technology programs.

“Schools could submit one application and would be allowed the flexibility to pool funds toward everything from purchasing hardware and software, to modifying classrooms to make them technology-ready, to training personnel so that technology can truly be part of the formula for improving achievement,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

Many educators who have experienced the eRate application process also welcomed Bush’s plan to reduce the program’s administrative burdens.

After reviewing Bush’s proposal, which is available on the Department of Education web site, Kyle Hutson, director of technology for the Rock Creek School District in Kansas, said, “That sounds wonderful. I just finished doing the eRate process myself for the first time ever–and what a royal pain in the butt!”

He added, “Anything to make my life easier would be better.”

Tom Sextro, technology director for the Holton Unified School District in Kansas, said he sees Bush’s plan to consolidate the eRate as a step in the right direction, because it could mean less paperwork and more flexibility.

“Just getting rid of the whole eRate process and being funded directly [would be] great, in my opinion,” Sextro said. “Too many schools have probably missed out on funds just because of errors.”

He is concerned about the proposal to measure how federal technology funds are used to improve student achievement, however.

“Right now, we just get the money and spend it, but we don’t have to prove how it affects kids,” Sextro said. “In technology, that’s one of the toughest things to measure.”

“The eRate program is time-consuming. Anything to streamline that would be good,” agreed Charlie Reseigner, technology director for Pennsylvania’s Penn Manor School District. “But, to credit the government, the eRate has gotten better over the years.”

He added, “I would like to have seen a national push at the high school level to prepare students for the high-tech workforce.”

Gearing for a fight

Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, said he thinks the chances are “very slim to none” that Bush’s plan to consolidate the eRate with other technology programs will succeed.

“The eRate has broad, bipartisan support from Congress,” Packer said. “There will be a significant disruption as you shift [control of] the program to the Department of Education from the FCC.”

But “at least [Bush] has a technology program,” he said.

Packer said his organization would work closely with Rockefeller, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who also opposes plans to change the eRate program, and others to defeat Bush’s proposal.

Links

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
http://www.senate.gov/~rockefeller

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

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New K-12 Management Solutions

ePALS SchoolMail
ePALS Classroom Exchange has introduced a safe, affordable, and customizable eMail solution for K-12 schools and districts. Called ePALS SchoolMail, the new service is a fully hosted solution, providing access to student and teacher eMail accounts from any internet-connected computer. Student accounts can be monitored by teachers and include the ability to filter out messages containing profanity, key phrases, attachments, or other questionable content. You can also set filter options based on the sender or recipient’s address or domain, so you can limit access to members of your school community only or to members of the ePALS Classroom Exchange community of 3 million students and teachers in 182 countries. In addition, access to external links, private chat, and other features can be blocked or unblocked at your discretion.

Accounts can be managed and centralized at the class, school, or district level. The service gives users the ability to send broadcast eMail messages at the class, school, or district level; track students’ eMail use; customize domain names and school or district interface; and control access to discussion boards and chat rooms, such as a chat room for district principals only or a discussion board for French students.

Another unique innovation of SchoolMail is its automatic, built-in language translation feature, which creates a multilingual user experience. Translations are available for 17 language pairs, including English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Chinese, and Japanese. ePALS licenses a language translation application from a company called e-lingo and customizes it for use in SchoolMail.

Pricing for SchoolMail, which depends on the size and number of schools in a district, ranges from $3 to $8 per student per year in the first year, but a discount as high as 40 percent may apply in the second year of use. (613) 562-9847
http://www.epals.com



Enterprise Student Information System (eSIS)
eSIS, a brand-new web-based administrative tool from Administrative Assistants Ltd. (AAL), is designed as a complete, web-enabled, user-friendly information system for tracking and managing student data in real time. Its multiple, optional interfaced modules let you collect, store, and manage an extensive amount of data on students in grades preK-12.

Developed using Oracle’s database technology, eSIS includes student demographics, scheduling, attendance, grade reporting and tracking, sports eligibility, historical data, and state reporting features. Optional modules include special education, continuing and adult education, student health information, fee management, curriculum tracking, and standardized testing.

AAL, the developer of eSIS, is a member of the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) initiative, which will allow the seamless transfer of information between SIF-compliant systems once a certification process is approved. (800) 668-8486
http://www.admassist.com



iMind Integrator
iMind Integrator, from California-based iMind Education Systems, is a web-based curriculum management, delivery, and assessment tool that allows educators to create and deliver lesson plans and assessments that are correlated automatically to state standards.

Through its partnerships with Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) and Achieve, iMind has aligned a set of core skill areas and learning objectives to the standards of 49 states (Iowa hasn’t developed a set of state standards yet). Teachers and curriculum planners can click on a template and build lesson plans around these various learning objectives, and iMind’s patent-pending correlation engine automatically aligns the lesson plans to the apporpriate state and national standards.

iMind Integrator includes a database of more than 500 web resources that have been linked to these standards as well, including online activities from FunBrain and Riverdeep Interactive Learning. Teachers can search for these resources by state standard or learning objective and can incorporate them into their lesson plans. In addition, the system will refer users to outside resources, such as best-of-breed software, that also meet the desired objectives. For an additional fee, iMind will import a school district’s own curriculum software into the system and correlate it to the standards in its database.

Integrator is a server-based solution that can be hosted by the school district or iMind itself and is sold at an annual fee per user. (877) 534-6463
http://www.imind.com



NetSchools Orion
Like iMind Integrator, NetSchools Orion–from Atlanta-based NetSchools Corp.–is an internet-based subscription service that provides instructional management and assessment tools aligned to state standards. One difference is that Orion is hosted for schools in a closed-gated, password-protected online community.

Like Integrator, Orion features a lesson-planning application that is linked to a database of resources and communication tools. When school districts sign up for the service, they indicate which standards documents they want to use. Teachers then click on an objective and receive a list of links to web-based resources they can integrate into their lesson plans. They can build lesson plans or units and save them for personal or school-wide use.

The NetSchools Orion database contains more than 50,000 unique online resources that are correlated to various states’ standards, according to the company. Online assessment-building tools also are included, so a student can take an online test and get immediate feedback as to whether he or she has mastered a particular objective, along with links to remedial resources.

For an additional fee, users can get a premium membership, which comes with access to a web library of more than 200,000 unique URLs of NetSchools partner companies (examples include the Associated Press and its photo library, Classroom Connect, Homeworkhelp.com, and Apex Learning). This additional fee includes customization of the service to include a school district’s own software or local standards. (877) 638-7247
http://www.netschools.com



Limitless SchoolSpace
Chicago-based Limitless Inc. has introduced a complete, browser-based school enterprise system that provides a streamlined approach to scheduling, grading, attendance, administration, and facilities management (including financial, transportation, library, and food service systems), according to the company. Called SchoolSpace, the solution reportedly brings these elements together into one seamless, easy-to-use package.

The system runs on an enterprise-wide database that organizes, stores, and retrieves critical information. This single-database structure is superior to modular designs and provides every user with real-time access to all data, according to Limitless. Once data are stored in the system, they are available throughout all applications, eliminating the need for multiple data entry.

The system includes a feature called Analysis Suite, which provides a bevy of comparative, trending, graphing, and holistic tools to evaluate student and overall school performance. With a few mouse clicks, users can get reports and graphical analysis that can be used to make more informed decisions about instruction.

SchoolSpace also includes communications tools, such as Assembly Space (a virtual meeting space online) and a proprietary visual chat feature that is still being developed. In addition, the company’s partnership with SonicWall provides users with state-of-the-art security, content filtering, and antivirus protection.

SchoolSpace is generally run from a school or district server, but Limitless can host the application for smaller districts if requested. The solution costs about $5,000 per school, plus an additional $5 per student per year for tech support and automatic upgrades. For districts with more than five schools, SchoolSpace costs about $2,500 per school. A tour of the system is available on the company’s web site. (866) 724-5512
http://www.schoolspace.com



NCS4Schools
Computer Curriculum Corp. (CCC) and NCS NovaNET, two divisions of NCS Pearson, have merged to form a single entity called NCS Learn. The new organization is scheduled to release a web-based product this summer called NCS4Schools, which the company describes as an “all-encompassing school management system” in which assessment, content, and student information are seamlessly integrated.

The product–actually a “solutions framework,” according to the company–will leverage the curriculum and assessment tools of CCC and NovaNET with NCS Pearson’s student information and financial systems and the textbook content of Pearson Education to create an “intelligent classroom.” This system will tie together instruction, assessment, remedial resources, and back-office enterprise functions into a single solution that enhances teaching and learning, NCS Learn said.

Through a password-protected web site, teachers, administrators, parents, and students will be given access to assignments, reports, and web-based assessments that measure progress toward state standards. A company spokesman said NCS4Schools would be offered either as a locally hosted and deployed, server-based solution or as an ASP-based model hosted by the company. Pricing hasn’t been set yet, but it will consist of a basic annual subscription fee per student, with optional supplemental components at an additional charge. (800) 242-7117
http://www.ncslearn.com

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eMail messages from around the globe spark third-grade geography

An eMail message that a Durham, N.C., third-grade teacher sent to spur her students’ interest in geography also has taught them about the power of the internet.

Nicole Thompson’s students can tell you all about the penguins and killer whales in Antarctica. They also know about the months of darkness that grip Iceland each year and the tea that grows in Darjeeling, India.

The Greenbriar Academy children learned those facts, and countless more, thanks to a simple eMail message from Thompson that has raced around the globe and brought more than 20,000 responses in six weeks.

“It’s crazy, just crazy,” Thompson said. “At most, I thought we’d get about 2,000 replies.”

In early December, Thompson sent a note to about 100 people, mostly friends and relatives or those of her students’ parents. She asked the recipients to forward her eMail to people they know in other states or countries and to urge those people to write to her class.

She hoped the exercise would make geography lessons more interesting for her students at Greenbriar, a small private school.

As the messages started pouring in from every direction, Thompson realized she had greatly underestimated the power of the internet. By mid-January, messages had arrived from all 50 states, 87 countries, and each of the seven continents.

A chart at the front of Thompson’s classroom listed each nation she and the children had heard from. As more messages arrived, the children colored in each new country on a world map.

The children heard from a missionary in Tonga, an English teacher in Mongolia, a business owner in Israel, and a civilian worker at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I know where Mongolia is,” said 9-year-old Hunter Frank. “It’s easy to find on the map. Russia is even easier.”

One of the most interesting notes, Thompson said, came from a carpenter named John Ackley living at a research station in Antarctica.

“I am at McMurdo Station, which is about 800 miles from the South Pole,” Ackley wrote. “Temperatures are not too bad this time of year. Over the past three weeks, it has been around zero to 35 above zero. Not what you might expect from the coldest continent on Earth.”

Ackley sent photographs of killer whales and other life found in Antarctica, as well as shots of his surroundings.

Messages like that keep school fresh and exciting, Thompson said, and that helps children learn.

“I want to go to Antarctica,” said 8-year-old Caitie Attarian. “I also want to see Greenland. I just think it would be really neat.”

Thompson initially planned to end the project when the children had heard from all seven continents, but now she has set her sights a little higher. The new goal is to collect messages from every country recognized by the United Nations.

Some of the stragglers she is still waiting for include Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. But with more than 1,000 eMail messages arriving some days, Thompson figures it’s only a matter of time until the map is completely colored in.

“The kids are thrilled with this,” she said. “They just can’t wait to get to class.”

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‘Rolling blackouts’ threaten California school tech programs

As California’s energy crisis worsens, skyrocketing power bills and rolling blackouts are holding many of the state’s school districts–and their technology programs–hostage.

“We’ve been lucky in that we’ve had no blackouts at all, and all our servers have battery backups,” said Kitty Sanchez-Pfeiffer, director of technology at San Marcos Unified School District (K-12, enrollment 12,000). “We’ve also told our schools to shut their client machines down if there is enough warning–but, of course, if the blackouts come without warning, the client machines will just go down with the power.”

Jamie Morse, director of technology for the Cambrian School District (K-12, enrollment 3,000) in West San Jose, agreed on the importance of power backups for the district’s all-important servers.

“Thankfully, all our servers have uninterruptible power supplies, or UPS, so they will shut down gracefully if a power outage occurs, rather than crash,” he said.

Morse said his district has yet to experience a blackout, “but basically, we are at the mercy of the power company.”

Most observers consider the Golden State’s current energy crisis to be a direct result of attempts to deregulate the industry over the past few years.

A rate freeze, part of California’s 1996 deregulation law, was established at what was then a generous level to assure utilities a steady stream of revenue as they sold off power plants and made the transition to deregulation. But last year, the price of wholesale electricity skyrocketed.

Because of the rate freeze, the state’s public utilities–which usually buy power for roughly 30 cents a kilowatt-hour–could charge customers only about a fifth of that amount, leaving many utilities serving California operating at a loss.

Electric companies have been selling their power to other states with less severe regulations, resulting in a lack of affordable power throughout the state. And that lack of power is affecting schools’ ability to operate.

Tony Hesch, field consultant for the California Department of Education, identified three possible scenarios that could result from the energy crisis.

“First, there are the rolling one-hour blackouts,” he said. “They are applied where the energy grid is short on power, and they may not hit every community. When they hit, most schools continue to operate, but the schools might go into a ‘study mode’ where they discuss electricity, power outages, and the current problems.”

Second, explained Hesch, is the possibility of more severe blackouts.

“In theory, if the energy isn’t shut down periodically with the rolling blackouts, a large portion of the state could go out,” he said. “In a school environment, we have to prepare for the worst, like what happens when an entire plant goes down.”

Finally, Hesch cited problems with some California districts that signed up to buy power at discounted rates years ago, when deregulation first started. “The really low rates were what we call ‘interruptible contracts,'” he said. “What that means is that the company will provide you with power, but when power is short–like it is right now–you’re expected to turn your power off.”

To make matters worse, nervous school administrators have no way of knowing when a blackout will hit their schools.

“We don’t announce it in advance for security reasons,” Ron Low, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) representative, told the Associated Press. “We don’t want burglars to know where the power’s going to be off and where security alarms are going to be down.”

Security concerns aside, the state’s two largest utilities say there often isn’t enough time to issue such warnings.

But that leaves schools with hard decisions about how to teach.

“Imagine holding a computer class when you know that a rolling blackout might take down the power at any time,” said Hesch. “It’s hard to decide whether to go ahead and power up, and it’s also hard to find alternative curriculum.”

A ‘real hardship’

The threat of losing power isn’t the only peril facing California schools. With prices escalating, some schools have had to reassess the way they use their increasingly precious power supply–including the possibility of limiting computer use.

Some schools have seen their rates go up to as much as $9 per kilowatt-hour, Hesch said.

“They were spending more money on electricity than was in their entire general fund,” he added. “At least four schools that I know of have had to close for a prolonged period of time. They are all back up now, but that could happen again.”

California Gov. Gray Davis used his Dec. 8 State of the State address to take his toughest stance yet on California’s electricity crunch, threatening to take over power plants to avoid blackouts and utility bankruptcies. But many school officials think the situation will get worse before it improves.

“In my opinion, we are looking at probably another 15 [percent] to 20 percent increase [in power bills] before this gets better,” said Morse.

Morse said his district is taking several steps to limit its power consumption–but, so far, none of these have involved limiting computer use. “We just make sure our maintenance crews are ensuring that the timers on the heating [controls] are working properly. They are supposed to turn off automatically at night, but you have to check up on that,” he said. “We’ve also told teachers and janitors to ensure that everything is turned off [when not in use], including lights, PCs, and classroom equipment.”

Sanchez-Pfeiffer agreed: “We are trying to conserve in other areas. It’s difficult to conserve energy when it comes to technology. But in my office, for instance, I have three fluorescent lights and we took out one, so it’s a little darker, but more energy-efficient.”

Most of the time, Sanchez-Pfeiffer explained, districts are unwilling to change their patterns where students are concerned.

“Right now, everything remains as we normally function,” she said. “We really try to protect our hardware, internet access, and the curriculum we deliver electronically.”

Sanchez-Pfeiffer said the city of San Marcos, the school district, and California State University at San Marcos are looking into other power sources, and district officials have notified school sites to shut down computers not being used.

“The problem is that we’ve found most of the computers in our district are being used,” she said–a situation that usually would be enviable.

Some observers wonder if the state’s energy crunch will force school districts to cut their technology budgets if it continues much longer.

“We are stressing that schools be prepared,” said Hesch. “The districts are doing a good job and rising to the challenge, but if this goes on for months, it will be a real hardship.”

Links:

San Marcos Unified School District
http://www.smusd.k12.ca.us

Cambrian School District
http://www.cambrian.k12.ca.us

California Department of Education Energy Challenge
http://www.cde.ca.gov/facilities/energyefficiency

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