Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Testing for Tech Literacy

Testing for Tech Literacy

On a recent Monday morning, the eighth graders in Chris Malanga's technology class at Riverhead (N.Y.) Middle School were hard at work constructing Web pages. Scattered across computer screens in this classroom about 75 miles east of Manhattan were Web pages reflecting students' distinct personalities and interests. One blared rap music. Others boasted purple text over garish background images. These were no mere MySpace (NWS) profile pages, constructed with a few clicks of the mouse from a menu. These students built their pages from scratch, writing pure HTML in a text file. "They like that it's something they learned in school that they can take home and use to jazz up their MySpace [pages]," Malanga says.

Before they embarked on Web pages, the students crafted tiny cars complete with bumpers, airbags, and seat belts designed for an especially fragile passenger—an egg. They watched videos on auto design, drafted 3D models of their cars using Google (GOOG) Sketchup, a free online application, and spent hours gluing together pieces of wood, cardboard, rubber bands, and balloons.

Technology classes like this are entering the curriculum in schools around the country, but they're not common enough, say educators, company executives, and policymakers. In a bid to make technology literacy more widespread, the National Assessment Governing Board this month announced plans to develop the first nationwide assessment of technological learning in U.S. schools. NAGB, a government-commissioned independent council, awarded nonprofit WestEd, a 40-year-old educational research and service group, a $1.86 million contract to work with educators, school officials, the business community, and the public on constructing the test, set to hit schools in 2012.

Laying a Foundation

NAGB officials and others hope the test will help reverse the slide in U.S. test scores and enrollment in such subjects as science, math, and engineering, and ultimately address the more generally waning competitiveness of the U.S. in technology. "If you look at the business community and post-secondary work, those sectors really need students who have science, technology, and engineering backgrounds to fill jobs in these new and dynamic fields," says NAGB Executive Director Mary Crovo.

Enrollment in graduate-level computer science and engineering is dropping, says the National Science Foundation. The number of full-time graduate enrollments in computer science and engineering courses decreased 11%, to 29,800, in 2004, the last year for which data is available, since peaking in 2002, according to the foundation. The number of foreigners with bachelor's degrees holding jobs in U.S. science and engineering almost doubled, to 19%, from 1990 to 2005.

No standardized test alone can reverse those trends, but backers hope it will lay a foundation for renewed and deeper emphasis on science and engineering at the earliest levels. To ensure the test's efficacy, San Francisco-based WestEd in December will convene a panel of advisers that includes instructors and representatives of such tech bellwethers as Intel (INTC) and Google as well as other yet-to-be-named companies in manufacturing, civil engineering, and other areas. "Our world is changing, the way we do business is changing, our reliance on each other is changing," says Paige Kuni, worldwide manager of K-12 education for Intel's Education Initiative and a member of the panel. "Kids have to be able to master those types of skills to be ready for a U.S. economy when they come out of the school system."

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