A test for tech literacy

The National Assessment Governing Board has announced plans to develop a standardized test to gauge the technological literacy of K-12 students, according to a BusinessWeek article. They plan to deploy the test to a sample of students in grades 4, 8, and 12. The article doesn’t say what, exactly, is going to be on the test. But, interestingly, there are some hints in the article that the test will include mechanical and scientific concepts under the umbrella of “technology”. (Lest we forget, there are all kinds of technology out there besides cell phones and MySpace pages, and being really skilled in technology has to mean more than just the ability to twiddle buttons on a gadget.)

I’m not sure what the K-12 system in this country needs right now is one more standardized test. But on the other hand, it would be awfully nice — for once — to have a standard means of gathering statistically viable data on technological literacy, rather than relying upon unproven assumptions and anecdotal evidence. Or, as it says in the article:

Companies like Intel need people who not only know how to use a computer, but also have a sophisticated understanding of concepts like security, privacy, and intellectual property that will evolve with technology in coming years, [Paige] Kuni [of Intel] says. Her hope is that a national tech test will spur more schools to teach these skills since many educators just assume that kids are naturally tech-savvy and can pick this up on their own. “Adults in our society and in other countries assume that because kids are digital natives, they automatically know how to use technology in meaningful work,” Kuni says. “Just because a kid can use text messages doesn’t mean they know how to [do things like] analyze data deeply.”

I hope that the edu-blogosphere, especially that huge chunk of bloggers and conference-hoppers on the ed-tech side who are endlessly enraptured by the notion of the digital native, is listening to those emphasized quotes. We need to stop assuming that kids have these skills and start teaching them.

So this test could be of some real value to the education community. On the other hand, it seems a little naive of the NAGB to think, as the article says, that this test — no matter how well it measures technological literacy — can play a significant role in “revers[ing] 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”. It seems that the NAGB people think that the existence of the standardized test will make classes which emphasize technology more prominent in the curriculum (“What’s assessed is what’s taught”, as Hofstra’s David Burghardt economically puts it).

Maybe . But when’s the last time a generation of young people got fired up about something because there was a big test on it? You can develop curricula and test it all you want, but when the popular culture still virtually criminalizes the idea of being smart among teenagers and younger kids — especially being smart in math and science — then it’s merely wishful thinking to expect a significant change in direction. But I’d love to be wrong on that.

[ht Joanne Jacobs]

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