Yet these new assessments will require major improvements. Over the coming years everyone interested in changing education will need to push further to find ways to design even better assessments. These tests will ask students to develop products or experiments; test hypotheses; analyze data; and support, justify and explain their reasoning. And over time we will see students work within real-world scenarios to solve problems with assessments that function almost like flight simulators. These tests will examine if students understand content and better gauge whether they can demonstrate critical thinking and apply learning.
Indeed, we are seeing other improvements in testing. This past May, for example, the Advanced Placement (AP) biology exam was updated to improve how it assesses students' critical thinking about scientific issues. The number of multiple-choice questions has been reduced by nearly half, and the number of open-ended questions—requiring students to construct a thoughtful written response—has doubled. In the next two years we will see AP upgrades for chemistry and physics as well.
Breaking the Dam: Access to Broadband
What all these innovations in teaching and testing share is a dependence on technology—particularly, reliable, high-speed Internet connections. Yet today fewer than 20 percent of educators say their school's Internet connection meets their teaching needs. In addition, although 91 percent of teachers have access to computers in their classrooms, less than a quarter say they have the right level of technology. Moreover, our teachers do not get enough training and support to integrate technology in their classroom and lessons.
Too often it is schools in low-income and rural communities that are on the wrong end of that connectivity gap. The divide grows even more pronounced when students leave school and go home. Alarmingly, a 2012 report from the Federal Communications Commission reveals that 19 million Americans—especially those in rural areas—do not have access to broadband in their communities at all.
That is why I am so excited about the president's call in June for a five-year effort that will provide high-speed broadband and wireless to 99 percent of students. The ConnectED initiative also aims to improve the skills of teachers, providing every educator in America with support and training to integrate technology into classroom lessons.
The federal government has had a role in bridging the digital divide and ensuring that all students have access to the Internet since 1996, through the fcc's E-Rate program. E-Rate has enabled the percentage of classrooms with Internet connections to increase to more than 95 percent, from 14 percent when it began.
Yet bandwidth has not kept pace with the rapidly increasing demand for classroom technology or high-tech applications that require faster, more reliable Internet connections. Currently far too many schools and districts struggle with slow Internet speeds, inadequate wiring and a lack of hardware. Indeed, the typical school has a slower Internet connection than the typical house in America; a school wired in the early years of E-Rate could be overwhelmed by students in just one classroom trying to stream video. Broadband Internet is the interstate highway for knowledge; ConnectED will build the on-ramps our schools and educators need.
Educators can help right now. Every school and district should take stock of its actual bandwidth capability by using simple tools to test and monitor Internet connection speeds, such as the one provided by SchoolSpeedTest.org. Gathering and submitting this information will clarify our collective understanding of schools' bandwidth needs and provide better data to help districts and states expand capacity.
The deficit of high-speed connectivity is a challenge we must meet. The upside to investing in quality digital infrastructure in schools is huge.