The Public Eye

Public Eye: What’s the best equipment for students taking new computerized school tests?

Local school districts are spending millions of dollars to buy new computers to prepare for the computerized testing the state will require in the next school year, as well as the practice tests that begin next month.

The biggest spender by far is Sacramento City Unified, which used Measure Q bond money and federal funds to purchase 6,372 MacBook Air laptops – averaging $1,002 to supplement existing technology. The district spent about $9 million on the laptops and the carts that will carry them from classroom to classroom.

Most Sacramento County districts opted to purchase the Chromebook, a much cheaper laptop that costs between $240 and $310, depending on the maker, software installed and the quantity ordered.

Whether taxpayers agree with Sacramento City Unified’s choice or that of other districts, school officials say they are simply trying to get the best bang for their buck. Natomas Unified, for example, spent $623,000 on carts and the 2,100 Chromebooks that will fill them. San Juan spent $1.56 million to purchase 4,218 Chromebooks at about $310 each, with 116 carts.

Sacramento City Unified officials said the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air laptops they purchased are the best choice for classroom instruction. “We want to make sure that we aren’t bringing computers into the classroom that aren’t useful the rest of the year,” said Gabe Ross, district spokesman.

The Chromebooks are “affordable but limiting,” said Terry Kritsepis, assistant superintendent of information education technology at Sacramento City Unified. “We wanted to look at machines that had the most flexibility in regard to multimedia content from movies to work documents to PowerPoint.”

Students will use the computers to take the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, which will replace the former pencil-and-paper STAR test. The computerized test will measure how well students grasp the new Common Core standards, a set of national guidelines being followed by 44 states. The Common Core stresses critical thinking, problem solving and the use of technology.

Jeremy Priedko, coordinator of instructional technology for the SCUSD academic office, said the MacBook will allow students to add digital media to essays and to produce public-service announcements, informational videos, podcasts and blogs, among other things.

Gwynnae Byrd, a parent who sits on the school council at Leonardo da Vinci K-8 School, said she is “skeptical.” She worries the computers won’t be used to their “fullest capacity” and will require expensive upgrades in a few years. She acknowledged the need for technology in district schools, however, and said the students are excited about making movies and multimedia presentations. “Apple has a lot of great apps for younger elementary school ages,” she said. “If we are are going to fully use them, I’m all for it.”

SCUSD tested MacBook Air laptops and iPads at Rosa Parks and California middle schools for three years before it decided to buy them for all their schools, Priedko said. “In the learning lab, it became clear that HP wasn’t going to get us to where the Common Core asked us, which is engaging students with digital media. MacBooks gave us the tools to create digital media.”

Elk Grove Unified’s director of technology services, Steve Mate, said the Chromebooks are the “best bang for our buck.” He said the laptops can be used for less complex multimedia projects, but not “the higher-end” projects. Mate said district officials did not consider purchasing Macintosh products because the district uses Microsoft software to manage its network of 16,000 personal computers. He said it would be too difficult to manage two systems.

Sacramento City Unified officials like the mix of PC and MacBook Air laptops. Ross says this offers students experience working on both platforms, something they will need in the working world. “This doesn’t mean we are committing to Apple products,” Ross said. “It was the best fit for the cost.”

Terrence Gladney disagrees. “I strongly believe in the PC,” said the district parent who is a self-employed information technology contractor. “That’s what the business world uses. We are not using what 99 percent of the business world uses.”

The choice of computer should depend on what school district officials are trying to achieve, said Karin Forssell, director of learning and technology at Stanford University. “If you want to type, it’s important it has a good keyboard,” she said. “Think carefully about what you want to do with these tools. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer.”

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