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How new technology affects school testing in New Orleans

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Blair Sumrall and her husband, Brad, brought home their newborn son a few months ago to join his big sister Kathryn, who turned 2 this summer. Although their oldest is only a toddler, the couple already is thinking about schools.

  They plan to enroll their children in private schools for the next decade-plus, and Sumrall says she is fully aware of the significance of school assessment and placement testing — and their direct impact on children's educational development and her family's future.

  "I feel like the climate in New Orleans is ... competitive." she says, describing the often-stressful process of determining the best school for a child — and, equally important, ensuring he or she is accepted into the selected school. "I'm now realizing it was smart to go ahead and get [Kathryn] enrolled early." The toddler goes to a half-day, Monday-through-Friday program at St. George's Episcopal School Uptown. After researching options available in the New Orleans area, Sumrall selected St. George's because it began enrolling children as young as 1, while established private schools in smaller cities and outlying areas typically accept children at 3 years old.

  St. George's has alerted Sumrall that there is a waiting list for its program for 2-year-olds and that students already enrolled at the school get placement preference for later grades. Students entering St. George's don't undergo formal placement or admissons testing until age 4. Young children already at the school are observed by their teachers in lieu of such testing — to determine whether the child and the school are a good fit. Referring back to the competitive climate of private-school placement in the New Orleans area, Sumrall says she feels fortunate her daughter is in school.

  Complicating this age-old dilemma for parents of young children is the rapidly evolving role of technology — most notably the touch-screen tablet — in how students will be educated, in the private-school admissions process and in how children's educational development is evaluated both immediately and in the long term.

  It's a hot topic, with proponents claiming the hand-to-brain transmission of learning offered by touch-screen tablets is more naturally intuitive than reading and/or reciting. They also contend it opens doors for children to explore and discover things in new ways. On the other hand, some warn against rearing a generation of children so wired to technology that they are disconnected from the world in which they live to the point of being anti-social.

  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no "screen time" (exposure to computers, touch-screen tablets, iPhones, etc.) until at least age 2. Yet Apple, reportedly the world's most valuable corporation and purveyor of more than 700,000 apps, reports that early childhood learning apps, such as the popular Henry's Smart Headlamp, rank among its top sellers.

  Many educators, however, are not as keen on digitally enhanced learning. In a 2012 survey of elementary and middle school teachers by Common Sense Media, 71 percent of teachers said entertainment media use has hurt students' attention spans "a lot" or "somewhat." A 2012 report by education nonprofit Project Tomorrow (and paid for in part by the technology industry), found that only 17 percent of current teachers believe technology helps students to more deeply explore their own ideas.

  While admission and placement testing varies greatly between individual private and parochial schools in New Orleans, the norm seems to be time-tested, traditional models — but with a keen eye on the technology-induced changes now on the horizon. According to its admissions staff, the all-girl Academy of the Sacred Heart, which has students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, doesn't conduct admission testing until third grade. The Uptown school recently switched to the online-based Comprehensive Testing Program 4 (CPT4), developed by the educational services nonprofit Educational Records Bureau, which ranks as a popular test among Christian schools. At Brother Martin High School in Gentilly, which teaches boys in seventh through 12th grades, admission is based on a combination of report cards, an interview with school staff, recommendations and standardized tests such as EXPLORE, an all multiple-choice, pencil-and-paper test similar in methodology to ACT exams students take for college admissions.

  "Whether the student is coming to us from a private, public or parochial school, the EXPLORE test, given to everyone on the same day, is the only thing that can give us an equal playing field for each kid, as far as where they are academically and where they need to be placed," says Carlos Bogran, assistant principal for admissions at Brother Martin. "Otherwise, we'd have no way of knowing, because it'd just be based on how well their school prepared them for high school, which varies widely and is often not individual to the kid."

  Bogran says change is on the way. In the 2014-15 school year, Brother Martin will begin what he calls its "BYOD" (Bring Your Own Device) policy, which will require students to have a tablet device. As far as the implications for how students are admitted and placed, Bogran takes a wait-and-see approach. "Obviously this is the way education is going, so it's natural that this is the way testing will go as well," he says.

  Because of the differences in how schools test and technological innovations in education that seem to change with each school year, it is understandable that parents considering how to best prepare their child for testing find the process both daunting and exciting.

  "It's certainly something we're going to deal with for what seems like ... forever," Sumrall says. In the end, technology will win, she predicts: "Its different for all these schools, from what I've learned so far, but I am certain that touch-screens and tablets are the way [students will] be tested and taught throughout their schooling."

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