Christine Armario / AP

Common Core testing points out tech divide in rural, poorer schools

Remote areas face a challenge meeting demands of online education

SHANDON, California – In this tiny hamlet in San Luis Obispo County, home to artisan vintners, family-owned wineries and farmworkers, summer school student Daisy Alvarez is using one of the district’s 60 computers.

At least, she’s trying.

The pages take forever to load. When they finally do, the type is partly obscured and she has to wait even longer to see the full text.

“They’re really slow,” said the 16-year-old who will be a senior in the fall.

In a country where most states have adopted online Common Core standardized tests, no access to high-speed Internet, not enough technology support staff and insufficient up-to-date equipment present a huge challenge, especially in poorer and more rural areas.

In 2013, President Obama announced the ConnectED initiative and said: “In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools? Why wouldn’t we have it available for our children’s education?”

At that time, he set a goal of connecting 99 percent of students to broadband in five years to promote online education nationwide.

But that ambitious goal may take a while to reach rural areas such as Shandon. Almost two-thirds of public schools don’t have the high-speed Internet that digital learning requires. Results from a survey by The Center for Education Policy found that more than half of districts didn’t expect to be tech-ready until later this year or next.

And in rural areas and poorer school districts, whose populations are often likely to be from minorities, the problem is drastically more severe: Only 14 percent have the broadband speed needed.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project found in 2012 that only 62 percent of people in households making less than $30,000 a year used the internet but the numbers jumped to 90 percent for households making $50,000 to $74,999. Only 49 percent of African Americans and 51 percent of Hispanics have high-speed internet at home, compared to two-thirds of whites.

Only 50 percent of teachers in the lowest income areas said their school gave them good support incorporating technology into their teaching compared to 70 percent in higher-income areas.

Another report in 2013 by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research Poll, found that 50 percent of Hispanic parents said a lack of computers and technology was a problem, while 34 percent of black parents and just 16 percent of white parents said the same.

How many schools in California offered online education five years ago?

“Zero,” said Cindy Kazanis, director of the Education Data Management Division of the California Department of Education. “None of them were online.”

More than 300 schools were not equipped to handle Common Core testing. The list has been whittled down to 171, she said.

“We need to have fiber optic lines. There’s no question about it,” said James Brescia, San Luis Obispo County Superintendent of Schools.

In the Shandon Joint Unified School District, three-quarters of the students are Latino and eligible for reduced-price meals. The nearest fiber optic cables are 10 miles away and schools here have to get by on three T-1 lines, digital circuits provided by the phone company. The total speed of 4.5 Megabits per second (Mbps) supports 306 students, plus teachers staff.

“We average 90-95 percent capacity and we hit 100 percent at least once or twice a day,” said school superintendent Teresa Taylor. “If I can think faster than my computer, that’s a problem.”

Uploading the student data every school must report to the California Department of Education uses up 20 percent of the district’s bandwidth capacity.

If I can think faster than my computer, that’s a problem.

Teresa Taylor

Superintendent Shandon, California, schools

Daisy Alvarez works on a Shandon Joint Unified School District computer.
Haya El Nasser

So when the Common Core tests were administered for the first time this spring, only 30 students at a time could take the test.

“And everyone else was asked to stop using the computers,” Taylor said. “Our students were not able to take the practice test because of limited Internet access.”

All this may change later this year. Shandon is one of more than 200 schools in California that were awarded broadband grants from a $27 million state fund to improve their connectivity.

Field tests conducted last year showed just how poorly equipped some school districts are.

 “Some schools have changed their testing schedule because they haven’t had the capacity to test students at the same time,” Kazanis said.

The state already approved spending $1.25 billion in 2012 for instructional material, professional development and technology to prepare for Common Core testing.

A study by the Public Policy Institute of California found a huge gap in online learning between urban and rural areas.

The White House aims for schools to have at least 100 Mbps connections. In California, almost 6 percent of rural schools are below 10 Mbps.

“If we just look at the share of districts with sufficient bandwidths, 66 percent of rural districts don’t have enough,” compared to 18 percent of urban districts, said Niu Gao, research fellow at the institute and author of the report.

Even schools that have good hardware and network capabilities are concerned about software and training of teachers and IT staff.

A secure browser has to be installed on school computers and teachers need to be trained to help students log in, Gao said.

“What we found is that 73 percent of districts have sufficient hardware, 76 percent have sufficient network but only 51 percent have sufficient software and 32 percent have enough staffing,” she said. The problem is worse in districts with low spending per student.

 “Whether it’s urban or rural, it doesn’t seem to matter,” Gao said. “It’s about controlling for spending and enrollment … It’s not just about the amount of money but how the money is being spent.”

It’s not even clear if all schools know how to apply for grants, she said.

“In the longer term, virtually all schools will need to upgrade their technology infrastructure in order to adopt and benefit from digital learning,” she said.

In a way, Common Core testing has forced schools to get up to speed, Taylor said.

When her district finally gets fiber optic lines later this year, Shandon’s connectivity will increase by more than 200 times – from 4.5 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps. State fire and transportation agencies in the area will use the fiber optic lines, too.

District officials say Shandon’s challenge comes more from its remote location than the fact that it’s a poorer district.

“This is really an issue about access to technology,” Taylor said. Common Core testing “exposed the problem.”

Brescia points out that rural and more remote wineries rely on satellite reception because they don’t have connectivity either.

But there is one difference. They can afford electronic tablets that capture satellite signals. Schools can’t. 

“Those impacted by poverty have some barriers that are unique to overcome,” said Tom Ryan, former chief information officer for the Albuquerque school district, now on the board of the Consortium for School Networking. “In rural areas, the infrastructure doesn’t tend to be built out.”

Some communities have money but there is no existing infrastructure to buy. “In some other areas that are Native American reservations, there is neither internet or cell phones. It’s cost-prohibitive for some of these companies to go into rural area … If you’re a poor kid and don’t have internet access at home, how do you do your homework?”

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