Will an information literacy exam become the next SAT?

October 30, 2006

Via Nate Anderson at Ars Technica, we have an interesting article here.

Various groups in the United States, and presumably around the world, are moving ever-closer toward standardised testing for computer literacy among school students. The Educational Testing Service, which maintains the American Standard Aptitude Test (SAT) system, has already produced a demonstration test for various computing skills, while the National Forum on Information Literacy recently announced the “ICT Literary Policy Council”, which will be responsible for monitoring the aforementioned exam.

While this seems to be good news, in that students must develop adequate information skills in order to cope in today schools, I have to wonder if it’s a solution in search of a problem. The ETS would test such skills as search efficiency, and other business-related tasks, and even claims to ensure that students can assess the value of sources they find, with reference to their bias, timeliness and so on.

So, how does it test students on their ability to assess the accuracy and usefulness of websites?

Well, the example shown is hardly descriptive of the kind of teaching we’d see in the real world. The test would combine two tasks – “access” (database searching) and “evaluate” (determine usefulness) – in a combined task that is intended to take fifteen minutes or so, but I’m not sure that they’d do it so well.

Wouldn’t it be more useful to provide the student with an excerpt from a website or publication, with all the source information required, and ask them questions directly about its usefulness? Say, something like this:

  1. What factors must be considered when reading that particular source? (Date, author, purpose, audience, language, their ability to know, references…)
  2. How reliable would it be, and why?

These are basic questions, taught in any history class, but they don’t fit the format of a standardised test. That’s worrying.

More worrying is the way they’re trying to teach basic business skills, like constructing PowerPoint slides to effectively present an argument. Here’s a choice example:

Dear God, no.

Please God, no. We don’t need any more PowerPoint slides as cluttered, unprofessional and hard to read as this. A whole nation of children, specially trained to produce this garbage, would be utterly soul-destroying.

A bigger problem

Looking at the demonstration of a possible new standardised test for IT skills, I’m not convinced that it’s targeting the right problems. Anderson continues in his own article, quoting Michael Lorentz, a Michigan librarian, on a test he conducted in which students had to determine which of an eclectic selection of sites were real:

 “The students had mixed success,” he says. “They correctly identified the whale watching, shards of glass, male pregnancy, and tree octopus sites as being hoaxes. They correctly identified the Texas independence and the human extinction movement as real. They mistakenly labeled the Hawaiian and West Florida independence sites as hoaxes. They also believed the Fredericton site [a fake town] and the Feorran site [a fake language] were real.”

That’s worrying. Children today are by leaps and bounds the fastest adopters of new technologies – speaking anecdotally, teenagers both use computers at home more often, and for far more complex tasks, than do their parents – and I dare say that the vast majority would pass the ETS demo linked above without much difficulty at all.

Clicking buttons on a screen does not teach you to assess the validity of a source.

Unfortunately, I think the problem runs much more deeply than simply teaching children information skills. Ideally, each one would have the chance to learn about origins, motive, bias, audience and all other major factors in weighing a source, and have the chance to actually write their assessments of sample sources. By hand. With a pen, so that they can’t be marked by a computer, and they have the scope to make individual comments and judgments that can be marked on individual merit.  An information literacy SAT would not be the answer.
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2 Responses to “Will an information literacy exam become the next SAT?”

  1. Lex Says:

    They already have an “IT compitancies” which we all had to pass in high-school… I’m not opposed to it, as a rule… just so long as they don’t expect stupidly difficult things. But searching google and stuff could be quite ok ^^;

    Anyways, hello my love *chu*

  2. Lex Says:


    Where is the article saying how gorgeous your girlfriend is? Or how good at DDR she is? *pout*

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