A Plan Without a Plan


Without some leadership and cooperation at all levels, a new federal mandate forgathering data on students’ technological literacy will produce meaningless results.

SOMETIME THIS YEAR, the federal government, through your state’s department of education, will be asking you how many eighth-grade students in your district have been determined to be technologically literate. (The exact formation of the questions to be used in the collection of this information is not final.) This is thanks to Title II-D of the No Child Left Behind Act—Enhancing Education Through Technology—which has as one of its goals: “To [ensure] that every student is technologically literate by the time the student finishes the eighth grade, regardless of the student’s race, ethnicity, gender,family income, geographic location, or disability.”

When NCLB was signed by President Bush in 2001, the federal DoE told state educational technology directors and state DoEs that they would not be required to collect data associated with EETT’s technological literacy goal. That policy stayed in effect until this past summer, when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) informed the Education Department that it must now begin to gather data on student tech literacy. Data will be collected for the 2006-2007 school year, even though the terms of the data requirement have not been finalized.As of this writing, the DoE:

  • will not define technological literacy
  • will not define how to assess technological literacy
  • will not provide any additional money to use in assessing technological literacy
  • will not provide more flexibility in how EETT money can be spent to assess technological literacy
  • will not require that states distinguish between districts that receive EETT funds and those that do not

In short, all of these matters are being left to the states. So, what are the states choosing to do? A few already have tests in place for assessing student tech literacy, and a few more are thinking about it, but most will ask questions of those at the district level and send in the results. But the results will be meaningless. Why? Have a look again at the list of things missing from the government’s plan for gathering data on tech literacy, then imagine the quality of the results that will emerge as each district defines tech literate slightly differently fromthe next, and makes assessments however it chooses.

Most states have a formal definition of technological literacy, but they do not or will not require local districts to use it in connection with this effort. Talking with state technology directors, I more often than not heard the comment, “We are a local-control state.” Tim Magner, director of the Office of Educational Technology, alluded to the same problem, saying,“That is one of the big challenges of a federal system.”

To get an idea of the disparity among the various approaches states are considering or have already taken, mull on this:

  • One state is contemplating defining technological literacy as the ability to use an online testing program.
  • Another state is planning to tie the definition to the ability to pass a Technology, Life, and Careers course.
  • Another state has a laptop initiative for all students in the seventh and eighth grades. State officials are assuming that all their eighth-graders are tech literate.
  • Another state has technology standards embedded in its core curriculum, and thinks it will say that any student who has taken its core curriculum is technologically literate.

And then there is the vast majority of states, which are leaving it entirely up to the districts to tell them how many students are tech literate without requiring the use of the state definition, while allowing assessment tools as varied as a hands-on skills test, a multiple-choice knowledge test, a project result, an aggregation of projects in a portfolio, or simply teacher observation.

To say that comparing data from different assessment methods is like comparing apples and oranges isn’t going far enough. It’s much worse.

To say that comparing data from different assessment methods is like comparing apples and oranges isn’t going far enough. It’s much worse. This isn’t comparing apples and oranges, or even calling apples and oranges a fruit salad. It’s like taking apples, car batteries, sailboats, chairs, cats, printers, and gravel and bringing them all together under one name. If this all gets implemented as currently envisioned, for this year, we will amass an enormous quantity of useless data. In fairness to the Education Department, this requirement was put on it by the OMB, and everyone involved, from the DoE to the state directors of technology, is trying to make things as easy as possible for all concerned. They all realize there is no additional money for this effort, and schools are already up to their ears in testing and other data requirements.

So, we in the ed tech community are faced with an opportunity and a challenge. We are suffering, like most educational programs, with a lack of information. We can take the easy road and collect a bunch of bad data, or we can take the more difficult road and start a process of collecting better data. School districts need to show a willingness and desire to gather better data, and states need to work together to try to unify that data. The federal government needs to show some leadership, flexibility, and preferably some money.

We are not that far away. Under the leadership of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, the states have developed a definition for technological literacy, and most state officials I talked to referenced it. Most states adhere to the International Society for Technology in Education’s National Educational Technology Standards (NETS). The standards are undergoing revision this year, and the new standards are expected to be unveiled at the 2007 National Education Computing Conference. To be clear, I am not advocating a national technology curriculum, although I would argue that we have a de facto national curriculum with NETS. I am not arguing for a national assessment, but I am heartened by how much the states are able to learn from each other.

In particular, West Virginia has taken a leadership position, rewriting its entire curriculum to enforce the development of 21st-century skills, including global awareness, problem solving, critical thinking, and technology proficiency. The state is looking at a rigorous assessment of all of those areas.

This new attention to EETT’s goal of technological literacy relates to a previous complaint from OMB that there is insuf- ficient data on the impact of the program. Now the department is requiring that the data be collected, but without an organized, consolidated collection strategy, the data will not reveal the impact of EETT or anything else. If we are going to go to the trouble of collecting data, let’s arrive at information that will help us know and understand more. Instead of leaving ourselves with apples and oranges, let’s at least do the work to create a fruit salad.

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editorial director of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.