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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Buying iPads, Common Core Standards, and Computer-Based Testing

The tsunami of computer-based testing for public school students is on the horizon. Get ready.

For adults, computer-based testing has been around for decades. For example, I have taken and re-taken the California online test to renew my driver’s license twice in the past decade. To get certified to drive as a volunteer driver for Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, I had to read gobs of material about hospital policies and federal regulations on confidentiality before taking a series of computer-based tests. To obtain approval from Stanford University for a research project of which I am the principal investigator and where I would interview teachers and observe classrooms, I had to read online a massive amount of material on university regulations about consent of subjects to participate, confidentiality, and handling of information gotten from interviews and classroom observations.  And again, I took online tests that I had to pass in order to gain approval from the University to conduct research.  Beyond the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Children’s Hospital, and Stanford University, online assessment has been a staple in the business sector from hiring through employee evaluations.  So online testing is already part of adult experiences

What about K-12 students?  Increasingly, computer-based testing spreads. For example, Measures of Academic Progress, a popular test used in many districts is online. Speeding up this adoption of computer-based testing is the Common Core Standards and the two consortia that are preparing assessments for the 45 states preparing to implement the Standards. Many states have already mandated online testing for their own standardized tests to get prepared for impending national  assessments. These tests will require students to have access to a computer with the right hardware, software, and bandwidth to accommodate online testing by 2014-2015 (See herehere, and here).

There are many pros and cons with online testing as, say, compared with paper-and-pencil tests. But whatever those pros are for paper-and-pencil tests, they are outslugged and outstripped by the surge of buying new devices and piloting of computer-based tests to get ready for Common Core assessments (see here and here). Los Angeles Unified school district, the second largest in the nation, just signed a $50 million contract with Apple for iPads. One of the key reasons to buy these devices for the initial rollout for 47 schools was Common Core standards and assessment. Each iPad comes with an array of pre-loaded software compatible with the state online testing system and impending national assessments. The entire effort is called The Common Core Technology Project.

The best (and most recent) gift to the hardware and software industry has been the Common Core standards and assessments. At a time of fiscal retrenchment in school districts across the country when schools are being closed and teachers are let go, many districts have found the funds to go on shopping sprees to get ready for the Common Core.

And here is the point that I want to make. The old reasons for buying technology have been shunted aside for a sparkling new one. Consider that for the past three decades the rationale for buying desktop computers, laptops, and now tablets has been three-fold:

1. Make schools more efficient and productive so that students learn more, faster, and better than they had before.

2. Transform teaching and learning into an engaging and active process connected to real life.

3. Prepare the current generation of young people for the future workplace.

After three decades of rhetoric and research, teachers, principals, students, and vendors have their favorite tales to prove that these reasons have been achieved. But for those who want more than Gee Whiz stories, who seek a reliable body of evidence that shows students learning more, faster, and better, that shows teaching and learning to have been transformed, that using these devices have prepared the current generations for actual jobs—well, that body of evidence is missing for each of these traditional reasons to buy computers.

With Common Core standards adopted, the rationale for getting devices has shifted. No longer does it  matter whether there is sufficient evidence to make huge expenditures on new technologies. Now, what matters are the practical problems of being technologically ready for the new standards and tests in 2014-2015: getting more hardware, software, additional bandwidth, technical assistance, professional development for teachers, and time in the school day to let students practice taking tests.

Whether the Common Core standards will improve student achievement–however measured–whether students learn more, faster, and better–none of this matters in deciding on which vendor to use. It is not whether to buy or not. The question is: how much do we have and when can we get the devices. That is tidal wave on the horizon.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...