When it comes to downloading music and instant messaging, today's students are plenty tech-savvy. But that doesn't mean they know how to make good use of the endless stream of information that computers put at their fingertips.
Educators and employers call those skills "technology literacy," and while everyone agrees it's important to have, it also is difficult to measure.
Now a test that some high school students will begin taking this year could help.
The ICT Literacy Assessment touches on traditional skills, such as analytical reading and math, but with a technological twist. Test-takers, for instance, may be asked to query a database, compose an e-mail based on their research, or seek information on the Internet and decide how reliable it is.
The test's initials stand for "Information and Communication Technology," and a version is already used by some colleges. On Friday, the nonprofit Educational Testing Service planned to announce details of a new version that some high school and first- and second-year college students will begin taking this spring.
ETS also designs and administers the SAT, but says this isn't designed as an admissions test. Rather, the goal is to show schools whether their students know how to use technology effectively and responsibly.
But the exam may prove difficult to sell to schools in an era of tight budgets and concern about over-testing. And "technology literacy" skills aren't as precisely testable as, say, geometry.
Still, Princeton, N.J.-based ETS says educators increasingly recognize the "three 'r's" have to be mastered not just on paper but also as part of the tech-heavy 21st-century workplace.
Education officials in at least two states — Texas and West Virginia — are monitoring early results to see if the test would be useful.
"Students know how do a lot of things with their iPod, but what is the educational value of accessing a lot of information?" said Anita Givens, senior director for instructional materials and educational technology at the Texas Education Agency, which is also considering whether the test could help evaluate teachers. "Having a lot of information at your fingertips is like going to the library and not reading anything."
Students will receive an individual score on a point scale of 400 to 700, and schools will get reports showing how students fare in seven core skills: defining, accessing, managing, integrating, evaluating, creating and communicating information.
The new "core" version that will be sold to high schools can be taken in a school computer lab over about 75 minutes and consists of 14 short tasks, lasting three to five minutes each, and one longer task of about 15 minutes.
Students may be asked, for example, to determine what variables should go where in assembling a graph, and then use a simple program to create it. They could also be asked to research a topic on the Web and evaluate the authoritativeness of what they find.
Students "really do know how to use the technology," said Dolores Gwaltney, library media specialist at Thurston High School in Redford, Mich., one of a handful of high school trial sites for the test over the next few weeks. "But they aren't always careful in evaluating. They go to a source and accept it."
Cassandra Barnett, library media specialist at Fayetteville High School in Arkansas, another trial site, said she can't be sure her district will eventually adopt the test. Tests like the SAT and ACT, integral to college admissions, will always get priority, she said.
But Barnett said she thinks schools increasingly recognize the importance of such skills.
"When our grandparents went to school, there was a finite amount of information," she said. Now, she said, the focus is "not so much that I have to learn everything there is to learn, but now I need to learn how to find what I need to know."