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Within three years, most states will start doing standardized testing online. The Hechinger Report has been examining potential benefits and problems that may arise when schools shift to testing on computers. One of the biggest concerns—even among advocates for online exams—is that the new tests could further disadvantage poor children who already struggle to keep up with their more affluent peers in school.

“Lots of kids are really comfortable with technology, but there’s a cross-section of kids that don’t have a lot of access,” said Douglas Levin, director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, which is helping states get ready for the switch from paper and pencil. “There is a fear that for kids who do not have regular access to this technology, the test may be measuring the kids’ comfort with technology, and not” their academic knowledge.

A recent article in The New York Times noted that, according to the Federal Communications Commission, “[a]bout 65 percent of all Americans have broadband access at home, but that figure is 40 percent in households with less than $20,000 in annual income. Half of all Hispanics and 41 percent of African-American homes lack broadband.” Still, many households, whether poor or wealthy, have computers at home. Indeed, experts are now worried that more disadvantaged children may be spending too much time on computers.

But the digital divide is not just an issue for children at home. Although the vast majority of schools have computers with Internet access, urban schools and those that serve large proportions of poor children are slightly less likely to have them than their counterparts in less urban and more affluent areas, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Fewer computers may make it more difficult for schools that serve poor children to help them learn the skills needed to succeed on the tests. The ratio of students to instructional computers with Internet access is 3.1 for schools where fewer than 35 percent of students are eligible for subsidized lunch. It is 3.2 for schools where three-quarters or more of students are low-income. However, the number of computers in all schools, poor and affluent, has skyrocketed in recent years—nearly tripling between 1995 and 2008—and will likely continue to grow as districts increasingly embrace educational technology in the classroom.

But there may be other ways that more affluent schools and students will get ahead. Derek Neal, an economist at the University of Chicago, believes that new online tests “may lead to more expensive coaching, because now school districts and parents will be spending money on developing software.”

Virginia began testing its students online a decade ago. In Fairfax County, Derek Kelley, the school district’s coordinator for instructional technology integration, says district officials have noticed a difference (if small) for some students with less access to technology.

They’ve dealt with the problem by creating a technology curriculum extending from kindergarten to sixth grade in which students learn the skills needed to take online tests in the course of learning their other academic subjects. In kindergarten, they might learn to use a mouse and turn on a computer. By sixth grade, they’re learning how to choose which software they need to complete a project, Kelley said.

“That helps level the playing field,” he said.

Test developers are less worried that a digital divide in homes and schools could translate into poor test outcomes for disadvantaged students. “The level of computer sophistication to respond to online testing is really pretty minimal,” said Joe Willhoft, the director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of states that is using federal funding to create new online tests. “You need to know how to use the up and down arrow[s], and maybe if it’s writing, you need to tap something on the keyboard.”

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Sarah Garland is the executive editor of The Hechinger Report. She started out in journalism reporting on murders and mayhem in New York City for New York Newsday and the New York Times, before joining...

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