Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Digital Writing Gap or Let's all switch to Pencil

Photo by mpclemens CC
The 2012 NAEP look at student achievement composing on computers were published recently (December, 2015). The results are not surprising but crucial for our next step.

The key finding is straightforward:
" While fourth-graders had similar overall average scores on the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing assessment and on a paper-based pilot writing assessment administered in 2010, an analysis of 15 writing tasks common to both assessments revealed a different story.  The average score of high-performing fourth-graders was higher on the computer than on paper, whereas low- performing students did not appear to benefit from using the computer.  This finding suggests that low-performing fourth-graders did not fully demonstrate their writing ability on the computer in the 2012 NAEP computer-based pilot writing assessment, and that the use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap."
The growing gap is scary stuff. The results mirror the work by Don Leu that found similar effects with reading digitally. One response can be, so let's just assess kids without technology. The logic is that is technology in assessment widens the achievement gap then we should just go back to pencil and reduce the gap. Switching to pencil, however, is a short-sighted response. Assessment strived to approximate real world knowledge and skill. Writing in our world is done on devices more than any other way. One might argue about the value of note taking by hand, but the composition of personal, public, and professional communication is done electronically. Keeping the assessment to pen and paper would hide the much bigger gap that exists and divert us away from the main challenge- early access to digital technology for all children.
My claim here is that the language of the report makes it seem like the method is the culprit- "the use of the computer may have widened the achievement gap" I would argue it just exposed it.

I hear teachers and administrators worry that the tools embedded in the software/ internet provide "cheats". Children will use editing, dictionary, and spelling tools in a way that would reduce their learning.
This, however, is what the study found:
"In the computer-based pilot assessment, students’ actions on the computer were captured and analyzed for the lowest performing 20 percent of students, the highest performing 20 percent of students, and the middle-performing 60 percent of students. Compared to the middle- and high-performing students, a higher percentage of low-performing students:

  • used key presses less frequently;
  • did not use the spellcheck function;
  • did not accept any automated spelling corrections; and
  • used the backspace key less frequently to edit their work.
Overall, students who accepted spelling corrections and used the backspace key more often were also likely to write longer responses. "
Less capable students seem to be using tools less, partially explaining their lower achievement. Our problem is not that the tools are a crutch for low achievers, it is that they do not use them enough.

It is about access:
"The 2012 fourth-grade writing data indicate that students with access to the Internet at home were more likely than those without access to:

  • write longer responses;
  • use the spellcheck tool more often;
  • use the thesaurus tool more often; and
  • use bold and italics for emphasis more often. "
And who doesn't have access?
"The percentage of fourth-graders without access to the Internet at home was higher for Black students, Hispanic students, students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, English language learners, and students with a disability."

To solve this problem of wider gaps in the information age, we must first provide constant access to tools- not an occasional one but habit forming access. Then we must teach digital strategies for using these tools for all students NOT just those who we deem ready.

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