Knowing How Also Important: Will Children Have Enough Access to Develop the Computer Expertise for Testing?

The arguments over the Common Core implementation in Tennessee will continue long past the two days of hearings last week by the Senate Education Committee, but I found one aspect of the questions and answers troubling.

The state has appropriated $51 million for technology grants. Will it be enough to ensure that all school systems have the technology they need? That money won't mean a computer for every student, but may be just enough for the groups taking the test. But how do students develop computer skills and keyboarding expertise for the tests if they don't have regular access to a computer?

Do all school systems, especially in rural areas, have enough computers for the testing? Can all the students in a grade take the test at the same time? If they take the test in shifts, then what about test validity?

Are students learning the keyboarding skills necessary to be proficient? Even if you have enough computers to do the testing, will students have the computer skills without regular exposure to developing those skills?

Developing computer expertise is a core curriculum skill in itself.

State Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, noted that we have spent a lot of time in recent years trying to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It took a court case to try and equalize education funding between rural counties with little tax base and the richer counties. She said she hoped that access to technology would not be widening that gap once again and result in an unfunded mandate on local schools.

In elementary school, the testing will require a student to write a one-page essay on a computer. Later on they will be required to write a two-page essay. These will be hand-graded by an out-of-state company, unlike multiple choice tests that are scanned. Grading the essays will be subjective. How much practice will students get composing essays on a computer before testing?

A total of 35 percent of a teacher's performance evaluation now is based on student scores.

So if you are a teacher, a third of your evaluation will be based on students adapting to a new curriculum, a new test, and it will require computer skills. How would you like to be put in that situation? And don't forget the state Board of Education has said if teachers cannot produce adequate scores they can lose their license to teach.

Knox County got a grant of $1.8 million for its 50,000 students. Of course, Knox County already has some computers in the schools and will no doubt work through these issues. Hancock County, one of the smallest and poorest in the state for example, has about 1,000 students and got a technology grant of $105,000.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said having all school children exposed to computer technology is a worthy goal for the state, though it was a side issue to implementing Common Core. He also noted that teacher evaluations are based on a three-year average of their student scores. So if the first year of Common Core testing is a disaster for scores, the two previous years will raise the average. I'm sure it's a comfort for teachers that it may be only one out of three low numbers that wrecks their average.

There will be a lot of debate about Common Core in the coming legislative session. I suspect that the content of the curriculum will be scanned for liberal bias and there is also a lot of concern about student data not being kept private.

But legislators should also be spending time to be sure that each school system has the tools necessary to do the testing. They also need to look at modifying or eliminating the state school board threat to take away teacher licenses.

What's in the curriculum is important. But having accurate data from valid testing that truly measures student and teacher performance is also vitally important.

In this case, the how is almost as important as the what.