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Academic Skills on Web Are Tied to Income Level

Author: Motoko Rich

Wealthier students tend to perform better on tests of reading comprehension than their poorer peers, a longstanding trend that has been documented amply. But with the Internet having become an indispensable part of daily life, a new study shows that a separate gap has emerged, with lower-income students again lagging more affluent students in their ability to find, evaluate, integrate and communicate the information they find online.

The new research, led by Donald J. Leu at the University of Connecticut, is appearing this month in Reading Research Quarterly. Although the study is based on a small sample, it demonstrates a general lack of online literacy among all students, indicating that schools have not yet caught up to teach the skills needed to navigate digital information. Although youngsters are experts at texting, posting photographs on Instagram and upgrading to the newest social media app while their parents are trying to decipher Facebook, children are still not adept at using the Web to find reliable information.

The study, which focused on seventh-grade students from two middle schools in Connecticut, compared reading test scores from the federal exams often known as the Nation’s Report Card as well as results of assessments that required students to perform tasks such as researching the question “are energy drinks heart healthy?” using multiple web resources. The students were evaluated on such things as whether they could use keywords effectively in search engines, determine the credibility of a website, discern the bias of an Internet author and communicate their findings through email.

Students from a school in a community where the median family income was more than $100,000 demonstrated slightly more than one extra school year’s worth of online reading ability compared with students from a community where the median family income was close to $60,000.

“This is more likely a comparison between a wealthier district and a middle-class district,” said Mr. Leu, who said the researchers did not receive permission to study schools in the poorest communities in the state. “So the gap that we found, we would expect it to be greater if the economic differences were greater.”

Because an increasing number of life tasks and jobs depend on the ability to sift through boundless online information presented in various formats — text, videos, graphics and social media — the ability of a student to accurately search for and evaluate information on the web is becoming crucial to success.

Yet few teachers are incorporating digital literacy into their curriculum. Because so many people use the Internet during leisure time, they might not realize how useful it could be as an educational tool, some experts say. They also may not realize how much their students need assistance.

“Teachers have to expect and recognize that they can’t just say ‘Google something,’ because some of our students still don’t know what that means, believe it or not,” said Susan B. Neuman, a professor of early childhood and literacy education at New York University who is a co-editor of Reading Research Quarterly. In the study, the researchers polled the students about whether they used the Internet for schoolwork. They found that three quarters of the students in the lower-income school had been required to use the web for school assignments, compared with 97 percent in the more affluent school.

“In schools that tend to be high need, high poverty, and low scoring, curriculum focuses intensely on those skills that are tested,” said Sara Kajder, an assistant professor of English education at the University of Georgia who was not involved in the study. “We don’t test on media literacy even though those might be the most important skills that we can give kids right now.”

Despite the higher rates of academic Internet use among the more affluent students in the study, a little more than a quarter of them performed well on tasks where they were required to discern the reliability of facts on a particular web page. Only 16 percent of the lower-income students performed well on those tasks.

“It was a little bit startling,” Mr. Leu said. “We didn’t expect the scores to be so low.”

Some schools and teachers are working with students to develop their research abilities online, but with many states and districts scrambling to put in place new, more rigorous academic standards known as the Common Core, many educators are focusing on traditional texts and reading comprehension skills.

The Common Core standards do contain references to digital literacy, however. “Whether you’re dealing with the reading, writing or listeningstandards, there’s a notion of students getting information both from print and digital sources and looking at credibility and accuracy of the sources,” said Susan Pimentel, a lead writer of the Common Core standards.

James Damico, an associate professor of literacy, culture and language education at Indiana University, said teachers often assumed that because adolescents seemed so comfortable with technology that they actually knew how to use it in an academic context. Teachers have the “perception that the students are already tech savvy and can navigate and move around more quickly than the teachers,” Mr. Damico said. “But we can’t confuse that kind of savviness with critical evaluative skills.”

DMU Timestamp: September 22, 2014 20:44

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