Published Online: May 21, 1997


Inequities in Access to Technology Documented

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Students at schools with high proportions of poor and minority students have less access to technology than other students do, according to a report issued here last week by the Educational Testing Service.

"The most needy students are getting the least access to technology," said Richard J. Coley, an education policy analyst at the ETS policy-information center and one of the report's authors.

At a news conference here, he said the "persistent pattern of inequity" should dispel the belief that federal aid has leveled the technological playing field for disadvantaged children.

"There is a perception that in terms of technology, poorer schools weren't doing too badly; that because of Title I poorer schools look similar to other schools," Mr. Coley said. "It's not the case."

Schools have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on computers in recent years, lowering the ratio of students per computer to the current level of 10-to-1--but those computers are not distributed evenly. Schools that have higher percentages of minority students and that receive money from Title 1--the main federal program designed to aid poor students--consistently have more students per computer.

Limited Exposure

The disparities are greatest with multimedia computers, which have sound and graphics features that take advantage of the newest capabilities of software and the Internet's World Wide Web.

In schools with 90 percent or more minority students, the ratio is about 30 students per multimedia computer. At schools with minority enrollments of between 24 percent and 49 percent, the ratio is 22-to-1.

In an apparent contradiction, some disadvantaged, black, and Hispanic children are more likely than white and Asian-American students to report using computers almost daily, the report says.

Christopher Dede, a senior program director at the National Science Foundation and an expert on school technology, said that poor children's exposure to technology is often focused on "one very narrow type of technology" used for remediation.

"One of the persistent mistakes with educational technology is that when students are perceived to be gifted, it's used for enrichment, and when they're perceived to be of lower achievement it's used for remediation," Mr. Dede said

No group, on average, enjoys the optimum ratio recommended by the Department of Education of five students to one computer, according to the report.

Research Lacking

The report also found disparities between boys and girls and between racial and ethnic groups in the ways technology is used in school. For example, among college-bound seniors, girls were less likely than boys to have used computers to solve math and natural science problems, but were more likely to have word-processing experience.

Yet the report also says there were areas in which equity generally prevailed, such as the use of technology to teach reading, geography, and social studies.

Access and equity are just two of several topics in the 67-page report. Assembling research from many sources, it also looks at teaching, the quality of educational software, and the costs of deploying technology in schools.

Often, the report exposes glaring gaps in the available research. For example, there are limited data on how students and teachers actually use computers in classrooms, and on how technology is being used for different types of students and different types of instruction, Mr. Coley said.

Is It Effective?

Data also are lacking on the educational effectiveness of technology, although that lack may soon be remedied.

On one hand, computer-assisted instruction--often called "drill and practice"--has been studied extensively and been found generally to be effective in improving basic skills, the report says. Drill-and-practice programs have the virtues of being patient, of giving children time to respond, and of seeming unthreatening, said John Cradler, one of the report's co-authors and the director of learning technologies for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Numerous studies have also shown that technology is especially valuable in improving students' writing, the report notes.

On the other hand, the benefits of the "more cognitive" applications of technology--the exploratory activities that are among the most popular uses of school computers--are not well documented. But Mr. Cradler said that the sketchy evidence on those methods was encouraging and that many innovative projects are in the middle of evaluation.

Setting a Fast Pace

One problem is that technology is changing faster than researchers can study it.

Another is that "new ways of measuring performance are needed" to assess its effectiveness, Mr. Coley said. He acknowledged that those methods would be different from the standardized tests states rely on to measure academic progress and that are the Princeton, N.J.-based nonprofit testing company's main business.

The report also adds to the prevailing view that teachers need extensive training and experience in integrating the use of technology into their lessons. ''Computers," Mr. Coley said, "don't do anything by themselves to produce learning."

For More Information:

Copies of the report, "Computers and Classrooms: The Status of Technology in U.S. Schools," are available for $9.50 each from the Policy Information Center, Mail Stop 04-R, Educational Testing Service, Rosedale Road, Princeton, N.J. 08541-0001; (609) 734-5694.

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