Questions about public school technology

Public school leaders disagree on whether Louisiana will be technology ready when students take online tests as part of the push for more rigorous classrooms.

Ascension Parish Superintendent Patrice Pujol, who is also president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, told the state’s top School Board that there are widespread worries among superintendents.

“The technology resources are a grave concern for superintendents across the state,” Pujol told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. “There is a lot that goes with moving to online assessments.”

But state Superintendent of Education John White, while noting that the issue is raising alarms, said school districts have made major progress in recent months, which he said will be reflected in a report issued Tuesday by the state Department of Education.

White said the key school requirement — one computer for every seven students — is a modest goal, especially since education often trails industries when it comes to technology.

“This is just the right thing to do,” he said. “They (students) are the ones that have to work in the 21st century for their entire lives.”

The new tests will start during the 2014-15 school year.

They will given to students in grades 3-11 and replace LEAP, iLEAP and end-of-course exams, some of which are already given online.

The exams are part of a controversial push — it is called common core — for more rigor in classrooms, amid criticism that the changes could pave the way for a federally mandated public school curriculum.

What has gotten less attention are the sheer costs of computers and other hardware, software and capacity, that is required of school districts as part of the overhaul.

In January, White announced that 17 of Louisiana’s 69 school districts showed varying levels of readiness for the new tests.

That was up from five of 69 six months earlier, and White said there have been big gains in the past six months.

“What it proves to me is whether districts are urban or rural they can meet this modest state of readiness,” he said.

Pujol, whose district is one of the state leaders in technology readiness, said rural school districts face special challenges getting ready for online assessments.

“Their budgets are tighter than budgets like mine that have a broader tax base,” she said.

BESE members echoed those concerns. Jim Garvey, vice president of BESE and a Metairie attorney, said some schools in his district do not meet the 7:1 ratio of students to computers.

Carolyn Hill, who lives in Baton Rouge, said rural school districts face special challenges.

“When I think about these children I don’t want them to be left behind,” Hill said.

Carolyn Bradford, who lives in Ruston, said the most pressing issue is how districts can afford technology ugrades.

Stephen Waguespack, a BESE member from Baton Rouge, said one option for school systems might be to use part of the $69 million increase in state aid that the Legislature approved earlier this year.

White said the state spends $50 million per year on traditional school textbooks. Computer tablets cost about $250.

In some cases, he said, school time is when children are most disconnected from the computer technology they take for granted.

West Feliciana Parish Superintendent Hollis Milton said students at West Feliciana Middle School use iPADS that they can take home. “And we are piloting down as far as our kindergarten class,” Milton said.

He said his school system is on track to be ready for the new, online tests.

Terrebonne Parish Superintendent Phillip Martin said the push for online tests is an issue.

“Anytime you do something new, and we have not done complete online assessment, that leads to apprehension.

“Is it a concern? Yes. It is cause to panic? No.”