For Rural Students, No Equity Without Accessibility: What a Digital SAT Can’t Fix
While on a field trip, Tony Maxwell took a class of fourth graders to a restaurant at a local state park … and quickly realized he hadn’t prepared them properly for the experience.
The fine silverware felt foreign. As was the concept of a refill, which the waitress explained to one student who marveled that he could ask for another round of root beer. Later, after finishing his hamburger, the student asked if he could have a refill on that, too.
The experience, Maxwell said, was a lesson in “the hidden rules of poverty that we don’t think about.” He works as an instructional supervisor with the Middlesboro Board of Education in Bell County, Kentucky.
Those hidden rules complicate the solutions some might offer for rural America. Take, for example, the College Board’s January announcement that it will move the SAT online by 2024.
Digital testing offers some promise for rural students, in that it could provide access to testing sites that are closer to home — or, perhaps in the future, actually in the home.
The test is also designed to save their work and time if they lose connection or power, a critical measure in communities where steady internet is hardly guaranteed.
College Board has stated it will “address inequities in access to technology” by providing students with a device on test day if they didn’t have a school-issued or personal device to use.
However, access to devices are often the least of districts’ concerns these days, particularly after a pandemic and federal funding that proliferated laptops and tablets across the country.
Moving the SAT online also doesn’t get rid of the other challenges that rural students face.
In Bell County, where a third of residents live in poverty, Maxwell says there are hundreds of students across 12 public housing projects.
Many of those students don’t have access to consistent transportation, either because their family doesn’t own a vehicle or because their parents can’t drive them while working multiple jobs.
The SAT considered offering an at-home digital test, but scrapped it out of concerns that many students wouldn’t have three hours of uninterrupted, video-quality internet access. Instead, the SAT is relying on testing centers — which are few and far between in rural areas — or schools to host the test.
Administrators, such as Allen Fort, the superintendent and principal of the 180-student Taliaferro County school district in rural Georgia, say hosting can be tricky.
Some rural schools may not have computer labs with sufficient room for their students to take the test with privacy. Fort worries about cash-strapped budgets: the additional costs of sending rural teachers to other (more populous) counties, to get certified as SAT supervisors, the price of replacing a school day with a test day, or having to run buses and offer overtime for employees on weekends.
Says Fort, whose county is one of the poorest in Georgia: “A lot of folks would throw it out and say, ‘Here it is: This is equity.’ But where is the accessibility?”
Lately, Summer Martin has been asking a similar question. Dinner table conversations have shifted lately in her household, as her daughter, a high school junior in Bell County, has started worrying about college access … not for herself, but for her friends.
The junior increasingly sees gaps that going digital won’t help. She thinks of her friend, who lives in public housing with her parents, who never attended college. A good student, her friend showed up to take the ACT without an ID or driver’s license, not realizing she needed one to take it.
Even if her friend had known, it would have been a challenge getting one: her parents don’t have a vehicle. The licensing site is currently a half hour away… and soon, that site is slated to shutter, meaning the closest will soon be an hour’s drive.
In a place where some students have never been to a large city (or eaten at a nice restaurant), there are cultural gaps that still leave students struggling to access higher education.
“Many don’t have guidance from parents. The schools are stretched thin,” says Martin, who is the Director of Brand & PR at StraighterLine, an online college course provider: “These kids have potential. They just don’t know how to navigate all the rules.”
Studying Up on Broadband
What is the state of broadband access in rural America today?
The answer is critical to addressing the challenges rural students face as more testing options and educational services move online. Yet any sort of definitive conclusion remains frustratingly elusive.
The FCC’s national broadband map purportedly outlines the contours of internet connectivity across America. In reality, it drastically overstates levels of connection because it counts entire census tracts as “covered” if even one house has broadband access.
That leaves huge swaths of rural America not just uncovered but also worrisomely unseen, even as Congress passed $42.45 billion in funds for broadband through the Broadband, Equity, Access & Deployment (BEAD) Program.
The FCC is working on its maps, and on its very definition of broadband, which it currently defines as speeds of 25/3 Mbps or higher — a minimum benchmark that is insufficient for online education and which lawmakers and experts alike agree should be at least four times that amount.
However, many states, including Maine, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, aren’t willing to wait for the federal government. They are crafting their own maps: partly out of necessity, partly out of distrust.
In 2019, a Pennsylvania General Assembly report found that over 800,000 Pennsylvanians — 6% of the state population — did not have access to broadband despite the FCC’s official maps claiming 100% availability.
In the meantime, there are a few ways to grapple with the state of rural broadband. Allen Pratt, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association, estimates that about 15-20% of rural communities don’t have proper broadband access.
While the resources and technology to support faster internet speeds have improved in rural areas, Pratt and other experts say the actual physical implementation of broadband still lags.
In December, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association released a survey of its members, nearly 850 rural telecommunications providers, who represent a large majority of internet providers in America.
Those organizations reported serving fiber internet with 100 Mbps speeds or faster to just over 75% of homes in their coverage areas. That suggests about 25% of homes remain unserved, a figure not too far off from Pratt’s estimation.
States will look to whittle those numbers down even further, with the help of BEAD, which is prioritizing regions with less than 100 Mbps internet and anchor institutions — including schools — that have less than 1 gig.
Until then, McDonalds parking lots across rural America will continue to fill up at the end of the school day, as students use the free wifi to download their homework before returning to unconnected homes.