Electrical contractor to pay $3.3 million for e-Rate fraud

An electrical contractor based in Fresno, Calif., has pleaded guilty and agree to pay $3.3 million in fines and restitution for rigging bids on a U.S. government program designed to help schools and libraries in poor areas connect to the internet, PC World reports. Howe Electric pleaded guilty June 18 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division, to charges that the company engaged in two conspiracies to rig bids to two Fresno-area schools, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said. The bids were part of the e-Rate program, which allows schools and libraries to receive money for cabling, internet backbone equipment, and monthly internet and telephone service fees. The conspiracies began in 1998 and 1999 and continued into 2001. Howe Electric entered into agreements with former education consultant Judy N. Green, in which Howe was awarded contracts for the e-Rate projects at the West Fresno Elementary School District and the W.E.B. DuBois Charter School in exchange for awarding subcontracts to other vendors, the DOJ said. The other vendors had the capability to bid against Howe Electric on the projects but had agreed with Green not to compete in exchange for the award of the subcontracts. Green was convicted and sentenced in March to serve seven and a half years in prison for her role in the conspiracies…

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Ed-tech groups give candidates a wake-up call

As the 2008 presidential race heats up, school stakeholders are anxious to hear the candidates’ views on public education. For major education and ed-tech advocacy groups, the topic is about more than just a political agenda; it could well determine the success of the United States in the new global economy.

To emphasize the importance of education to the nation’s future and to drive home how much schools need to change in order to educate the children of tomorrow, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), and the National Education Association (NEA) have teamed up to develop a public service announcement (PSA) campaign aimed at the presidential candidates.

The campaign calls on the next president to respond to the groups’ vision for a 21st-century learning environment, says Keith Krueger, CoSN’s chief executive.

"We hope it will draw the attention of the presidential candidates and become something discussed and debated on the campaign trail, leading to major educational technology initiatives in the next administration. We also hope that the PSA will raise the profile of this issue in the minds of voters," Krueger said.

Although both Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and Arizona Sen. John McCain–the presumptive Democratic and Republican candidates for president–mention education on their web sites, and though their representatives have outlined some plans of action concerning No Child Left Behind and teacher salaries (see "McCain, Obama reps discuss education"), education certainly has not been a notable buzzword during the campaign … so far.

With only 7 percent of U.S. college students currently majoring in math or science fields, and with education at the bottom of all industries that use technology, educational technology and the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education must be among the major subjects discussed during the 2008 presidential campaign season, according to CoSN and the other groups.

The PSA starts out by reminding the future president that, thanks to the sound investments made in STEM education in the ’60s, Americans walked on the moon, helping the nation win the coveted space race.

"Today, nearly 40 years after this historic accomplishment, we’re facing new challenges–including a flattening global economy and climate change," the ad reads. "Now, more than ever, we must engage and train the next generation of scientists and innovators to address these 21st-century problems and opportunities. Student access to school technology, robust teacher technology preparation, and a renewed focus on 21st-century skills are as critical to this mission as they were to the Apollo astronauts."

This appeal to the presidential candidates comes shortly after another PSA, launched by CoSN and the Pearson Foundation, called on educators to develop contemporary classroom practices that incorporate technology to individualize and maximize student learning.

Krueger said the presidential PSA would help build momentum for making access to educational technology a national public policy priority. "It is just one of the many tools that we will use in our efforts," he said.

He added that the PSA is a great way to spread this message, especially if it is spread virally and beyond local communities into mainstream conversation.

"We know that we cannot reach out ultimate goal of a thoroughly modern classroom relying solely on state and local initiatives and without federal leadership and support," Krueger explained. "The current administration has had limited interest in technology in the classroom and has stalled efforts to modernize teaching and learning. Through this PSA campaign, we hope to show the next administration that educational technology is central to improving the nation’s economy and spur a reinvigoration of the federal government’s investments in education technology."

Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of SETDA, said public education can improve only with a concerted effort by the next president and Congress. Besides participating in the PSA campaign, Wolf recently had the opportunity to testify before the House Committee on Education and Labor regarding the National Math Panel recommendations.

At the hearing, Wolf discussed the importance of educational technology to increasing students’ engagement and achievement and pinpointing their strengths and weaknesses early and often through the use of formative assessment.

According to Wolf, committee Chairman Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., "strongly stated his frustration with the lack of use of technology in classrooms" and indicated that he would invite her back for a hearing focused on the potential of technology in the systemic reform of education.


Consortium for School Networking

State Educational Technology Directors Association

International Society for Technology in Education

National Education Association


Study: New SAT is not much better

The writing section added to the SAT has done very little to improve the exam’s overall ability to predict how students will do in college, according to research released June 17 by the test’s owner.

Critics of the SAT seized on the College Board’s findings, which came three years after the revamped, nearly four-hour exam made its debut.

"After all their ballyhoo about how the new test was going to be a better tool for college admissions, it’s not," said Robert Schaeffer, director of the group FairTest. "It’s longer and more expensive. That’s all you can say about it."

The College Board defended the SAT, saying that no predictor of college success is perfect, but that the exam is a remarkably good one. It emphasized the finding that the writing test actually does a slightly better job of predicting freshman-year college grade point average than do the math or critical reading sections, both of which are multiple choice.

"Both tests are very valid, the old one and the new one," said Laurence Bunin, the senior vice president who oversees the SAT program. "What’s important here is that the new SAT places an emphasis on writing" and offers a valid test of another skill that is "critical to college success."

The SAT now runs three hours, 45 minutes–or 45 minutes longer than the old version–and will cost $45 in 2008-09, up from $29.50, though aid is available. The ACT, the other leading college admissions exam, has an optional writing section.

The College Board added the writing test, including a 25-minute essay, to help colleges make more finely-tuned decisions about students’ skills. College admissions officers can even download a student’s essay and read it. The multiple-choice sections also were changed somewhat in 2005.

The College Board, a not-for-profit group, claimed the test would elevate the place of writing in high school classrooms. It backed up that argument last year with a survey reporting 88 percent of teachers said writing had become a bigger priority in their schools.

From the start, however, some teachers criticized the exam, arguing it encouraged formulaic writing and was susceptible to coaching.

The findings released June 17 are the most comprehensive study yet of the new exam, covering about 150,000 students.

The analysis measured the connection between SAT performance for the high school of class of 2006 and college grades.

The correlation scale ranges from minus 1 to 1. A correlation of zero would indicate no connection between scores and grades, and 1 would show a perfect correlation–basically, that high scorers on the SAT are guaranteed to earn high college grades.

The study found high school GPA had a .54 correlation with college grades, which is considered fairly strong. Individually, all three SAT sections had lower correlations, but taken together they were .53.

Combining high school GPA with the three SATs scores was stronger still–.62. But that was just .01 higher than if the writing exam weren’t included.

There were numerous studies of the old SAT’s predictive value. A 2001 analysis that combined about 3,000 validity studies found the correlation ranged from .44 to .62.

The latest research also found that the new SAT, like the old one, continues to predict college grades with varying levels of accuracy for different groups. For instance, SAT scores "overpredict" the college grades of women and are less accurate for minorities than for whites.

Critics contend those variations reveal fundamental problems with the SAT that should limit how it is used.

"My view is that, systemically, these tests aren’t working as well as they should," said William E. Sedlacek, a testing expert and a retired professor at the University of Maryland.

But the College Board noted that SAT scores are still a better predictor for minorities than high school grades are. "What that suggests is that it’s very important for these minority students to have a fair benchmark, a fair, merit-based way to be evaluated in the college admission process," Bunin said.

Many colleges have said they would wait for research like this study before making long-term decisions about how to use students’ SAT writing scores. Currently, some give the new section equal weight with the math and critical reading. Others look at writing scores selectively, while some ignore them completely.

Dozens have dropped the SAT altogether as an admissions requirement.

Stephen Farmer, director of admissions at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said the findings echo UNC’s own preliminary research.

"What we haven’t seen on our campus is that writing tells us much that critical reading does not," he said. "For that reason, we probably use writing less than we might have."

Typically, "we’ve used it mainly when there’s been a discrepancy between critical reading and a writing score, when a writing score has helped a student with low critical reading," he said.

Standardized tests are "useful if limited tools," Farmer said. "The problems crop up when people forget either about the usefulness of them, or about their limitations."


College Board



WorldWide Telescope brings the universe to students’ desktops

Microsoft Corp. has launched its answer to Google Sky: a free, web-based program for zooming around the universe from any internet-connected computer. Developed by Microsoft’s research arm, the WorldWide Telescope—which debuted in May—knits together images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and other labs. Computer users can browse through the galaxy on their own or take guided tours of different outer-space destinations developed by astronomers and academics. The site lets users choose from a number of different telescopes and switch between different light wavelengths. “The WorldWide Telescope is a powerful tool for science and education that makes it possible for everyone to explore the universe,” said Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chairman, in a statement.



Hitching technology to the classroom

U.S. education chief Margaret Spellings made a whirlwind tour of San Diego June 17 to discuss how technology in schools can raise student achievement and better prepare students for the real world, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. Spellings hosted the last of four roundtable forums, held nationwide over the past 14 months, at wireless giant Qualcomm, where she engaged leaders in education, technology, and investment on topics ranging from computers and cellular phones to electronic textbooks and teacher training. "Before I leave office I think we should stop, look, and listen with regard to where we are in terms of technology in our schools," Spellings said. The goal, she said, is to "set the table for the next administration," by taking an inventory of what works, what is needed, and what can be done to make technology relevant in schools. Members of the roundtable gave suggestions ranging from offering more flexibility in spending government money to drafting federal technology guidelines…

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Study: Many middle schoolers commit crimes online

The Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle reports that middle schoolers are more likely to be the perpetrators of cyber crime than the victims, a new study by a Rochester Institute of Technology researcher has found. Samuel C. McQuade surveyed 40,079 students in grades K-12 from 14 local school districts in fall 2007 and early 2008 and found that a child’s peers are the biggest danger when it comes to cyber safety. Children report being mean to one another online as early as second grade, but kids victimize their peers most in middle school. McQuade defines middle school as seventh through ninth grades. Of that group, 45 percent admit to committing cyber crime, while only 39 percent report being victimized…

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AT&T, Verizon want FCC to enforce net neutrality

AT&T and Verizon Communications say the Federal Communications Commission needs to show that its net neutrality principles can be enforced to keep future legislation at bay, CNET reports. Executives from the two companies on June 17 said it’s important for the FCC to take action against Comcast for slowing down some peer-to-peer traffic to prove that legislation is not necessary when it comes to net neutrality. Comcast, the largest cable provider in the U.S., has been under fire for months after it was discovered the company had been slowing down peer-to-peer traffic on its network. The company claimed it had singled out peer-to-peer, file-sharing traffic, because it was eating up an inordinate amount of bandwidth, which caused degradation across the rest of its customers.
Consumer groups were incensed by the tactic, and the blogosphere filled with criticism. As a result, the FCC has been examining whether Comcast violated any of the agency’s net neutrality principles. A hearing was held earlier this year, and the FCC is expected to make a ruling on the matter sometime this summer…

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Local investors save Philly’s Wi-Fi network

A group of local investors on June 17 said they have bought Philadelphia’s wireless internet network, a week after EarthLink Inc. gave up on the system because it failed to make a profit, the Associated Press reports. The investors said they plan to form a for-profit company that will provide businesses both wired and wireless high-speed internet access. They also plan to maintain the citywide wireless network Earthlink built for $17 million and offer wireless service free to consumers. EarthLink has pulled out of several markets, including New Orleans and San Francisco, because it couldn’t make money from Wi-Fi networks it was building. Earthlink’s service didn’t attract enough customers in Philadelphia to be financially viable because of connection problems, poor customer service, and prices that weren’t much cheaper than competitive DSL services. The Philadelphia investors said they are still working out details of their business plan, but in general, they hope to build a new wired network and provide both wired and wireless internet access to businesses and institutions such as hospitals…

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Vt. lawmaker proposes 4-day work week for state’s schools

A prominent Vermont senator wants state government and public schools to move to a four-day work week before the end of 2008, the Times Argus of Barre-Montpelier reports. Sen. Vince Illuzzi, an Essex County Republican, said skyrocketing fuel expenses threaten to deplete state and personal finances this winter. Shifting to a four-day work week, Illuzzi said, will shrink heating expenses for the state and save employees money on commuting costs. "If folks are commuting four days a week instead of five, I think there’s some significant cost savings that can be achieved given the current price of petroleum-based products," Illuzzi said. "We’re not giving them a day off, we’re asking them to do the same amount of work in a four-day period, to enable them to save costs, and to enable the state to save money on heating buildings." Illuzzi floated his plan to Douglas administration officials and union heads in an electronic message June 16. The concept, he admits, presents a number of logistical challenges, none of which he’s yet prepared to answer. But if government officials begin resolving those dilemmas now, he said, the state could be prepared by late summer to move ahead with the changes…

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Free online tool targets ‘military brats’

A new web site will allow children from military families to compare states’ academic standards and take a free online test to identify the gaps in their understanding as they move to a new state with different testing and curriculum.

Moving from one school district to another in the same state can make it hard enough to gauge a student’s academics—and moving to a new state altogether introduces even more questions. Has the student met required benchmarks? How does testing compare to the student’s former state? What will the student have to do to complete high school graduation requirements? Because the 500,000 children from military families move at three times the rate of their classmates, those questions can be ever-present from kindergarten through high school.

Children from military families "face a whole different set of standards and challenges than non-military students," said Nicole Rowe, vice president of The Princeton Review, one of the country’s premiere providers of test-preparation services. The company, along with the Department of Defense Education Activity, launched Student Online Achievement Resources (SOAR) in April.

Students in grades 3-12 and their parents can visit www.soarathome.org and review the standards of the state or school district they are moving to. Students also can take an online assessment to see how they measure up to their new district’s math and language-arts requirements. In addition, the SOAR web site provides a host of tutorials that will help students reinforce their skills or improve in subjects they struggle with.

"Our goal is to give them something that will ease that transition, something that will help to demystify the standards in the new state," Rowe said.

The online assessment tools have been used in school districts across the country in recent years to help parents understand where their child lies on the academic spectrum. Michael Perik, president and CEO of The Princeton Review, said those proven methods would be valuable to military families as they move from base to base, ensuring their children’s grades don’t suffer along the way.

"These tools have been used by some of our nation’s largest and best school districts," Perik said in a statement. "They help students improve their skills and feel more confident about their classroom and test performance, while at the same time helping parents as they assist their children with specific skills."

The SOAR web site has come online during an ongoing debate about the drawbacks of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Critics charge the 2002 law has resulted in states adopting drastically different standards as school boards and superintendents strive to meet NCLB’s demanding mandates, including one that requires all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

A report released last summer by the U.S. Department of Education measured state tests with a national assessment that compared state expectations side by side for the first time.

A fourth-grader in Mississippi is considered reading proficient with a state score that equals 161 on the national test, while a Massachusetts fourth-grader would need to score 234 to be rated as proficient. Some scoring differences cited in the federal study constituted a difference of several grade levels, making it difficult for military families to anticipate standards as they relocate around the country.

Rowe said a few thousand military families have signed up as members on the SOAR web site, but she expects that number to jump once the program exits its pilot phase this fall.

School administrators say students from other states or school systems usually take weeks—sometimes months—to adjust to their new surroundings and the curriculum. Switching to a new school district in the middle of a semester can be especially difficult for students, they say.

"As students move into our district with experiences from other school districts, there is some adjustment period needed based on courses that have been taken previously as well as content taught within grade levels and courses," said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas. "Our staff is generally well-prepared to help these students and their parents with the transition, but any service that can also assist families during a move in terms of education would be a welcome addition to the support structure."

Even some districts within the same state have standards that vary widely, Hirsch said. This can pose a challenge to the millions of non-military families who move within the same state and place their child in a district with entirely new academic expectations.

While there clearly is a need for tools such as SOAR for non-military families as well, only children of active-duty personnel can access the web site’s services at this time.

Rowe said the SOAR program is in its third year of federal funding and will receive $5 million this year. Expansion of the web site to non-military families would largely depend on continued federal dollars, she said.


Student Online Achievement Resources

The Princeton Review

Federal study: "Mapping 2005 State Proficiency Standards onto the NAEP Scales"