In an article this week in the New York Times, Motoko Rich focused on a recent study that revealed that not only is there an achievement gap in traditional literacy skills based on family income, there is a similar gap in the skills students need to navigate the web. The study compared the online research and evaluation skills of seventh graders from two schools in Connecticut. One of the schools studied had a median income of around $120,000 and the other had a median income of around $60,000 (Leu et. al., 2014). Students were given two assignments in the sciences. The first asked students to research the health impacts of energy drinks and the other asked students to investigate a claim that Chihuahuas can cure asthma (Leu et. al., 2014). Both assignments involved locating resources, evaluating websites for reliability, synthesizing findings, and presenting them on an online platform.
These web-based skills have become increasingly important as more jobs and daily tasks require sorting through information in a variety of formats (Rich, 2014). Only 16% of the students from the lower income school performed well on the assignments, demonstrating a greater need for digital literacy instruction in the classroom (Rich, 2014). The students from the wealthier school, despite having more access to high speed internet at home and more required online assignments in school, also performed poorly, with around 25% passing the assessment. This research demonstrated not only that there is an income gap for digital literacy skills, but also that these skills are surprisingly lacking, regardless of income.
The researchers in the study suggest that one possible reason for the score disparity between the schools is the pressure to focus on skills that will be directly assessed in standardized testing. They write that “economically challenged districts are often under the greatest pressure to raise test scores and may focus limited resources on…standards and assessments in an attempt to increase student performance” (Leu et. al., 2014). This leads to their argument that “Until and unless online research skills are more visible in both standards and assessments, economically challenged schools may be less likely to incorporate them into their curriculum” (Leu et. al., 2014).
This call to incorporate digital literacy skills into standards and assessments is powerful, and I believe that one step in this direction is to increase collaboration between school librarians and the teachers and students they serve. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has four standards for librarians that relate to inquiry, the discovery and creation of knowledge, and the ability to share that knowledge ethically (American Association of School Librarians, 2007). Within this framework, the AASL defines specific skills, dispositions, and responsibilities that students must demonstrate to meet these standards. Embedded within these standards are the digital literacy skills that are missing from broader standards like Common Core. The AASL claims that students must be able not only to “Evaluate information found in selected sources on the basis of accuracy, validity, appropriateness for needs, importance, and social and cultural context” but also to “read, view, and listen for information presented in any format (e.g., textual, visual, media, digital) in order to make inferences and gather meaning” (AASL, 2007). The language of online research that is missing from other documents is ubiquitous in the AASL standards, in which students must “Demonstrate mastery of technology tools for accessing information and pursuing inquiry” (AASL, 2007). Although these skills may not be reflected in end of year assessments, they should be a priority for school librarians. By seeking opportunities for collaboration and partnerships with teachers, librarians can help address the digital literacy gap and advocate for greater emphasis on these skills in the curriculum.
American Association of School Librarians. (2007). Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/learningstandards/AASL_LearningStandards.pdf
Leu, D. J., Forzani, E., Rhoads, C., Maykel, C., Kennedy , C., & Timbrell, N. (2014). The New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension: Rethinking the Reading Achievement Gap. Reading Research Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi:10.1002/rrq.85
Rich, M. (2014, September 23). Academic Skills on Web Are Tied to Income Level. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/us/academic-skills-on-web-are-tied-to-income-level.html