When students at Govans Elementary School in North Baltimore took statewide standardized tests last year, principal Linda Taylor said, some struggled with using a mouse to navigate the online assessment. Some didn't know how to scroll to the appropriate sections. Others grappled with how to highlight information.
The nearly 450 students enrolled at the public charter school shared roughly 70 computers, laptops and iPads. Some had access to a computer only once a week, Taylor said, making it difficult for them to develop the skills needed to succeed on an online-only test.
About 14 percent of Govans students passed the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test.
"You're going to stumble if you're struggling to navigate the system before you even look at the questions," Taylor said.
Four years after the Maryland State Department of Education began requiring the state's public schools to give students the PARCC tests, some teachers remain concerned that the online version is helping to widen an achievement gap they've spent decades working to close.
Children in grades three through eight and high school students take the PARCC test. Their scores help determine whether they are eligible for graduation, and will be used to rate all the state's public schools starting next year.
PARCC was designed to be taken online, and most Maryland schools quickly transitioned from paper and pencil to the computerized assessment when it was introduced in the 2014-15 school year. But as students sit for the test this month, it will be the first time that all schools are required to administer the computerized version.
Test officials say computers are a more secure way to administer a test, allow for faster scoring and enable more innovative questions. Proponents say online testing is an important way to prepare students for a workplace reliant on technological skills.
But some Baltimore educators worry it presents yet another hurdle for students from poor families. Nationally, researchers have found that low-income households continue to lag in technology adoption, and that the majority of teachers in poor schools feel their students are not prepared to take computerized tests.
Students without regular access to computers or high-speed internet at home will face challenges when it comes to building the skills needed to excel on the test, said Towson University Professor Jessica Shiller, who studies urban education. Low-income homes with children are four times less likely to have a broadband internet connection than their middle or upper-class counterparts, the Pew Research Center reported in 2015. The gap is wider for children from black and Hispanic households.
"Putting the test online just sets the city kids three steps back," Shiller said. "It's more a measure of income than skill."
After the first year of PARCC testing, some research showed that students performed better on the paper-and-pencil version of the test than on the online version.
The leader of the company that manages the PARCC consortium said he is "committed to fairness and ensuring no student is disadvantaged in how they take the test."
Arthur VanderVeen, the CEO of New Meridian, said the company recently studied the two modes of testing and found that paper test questions and computer test questions yield comparable results. He said the data from those studies likely won't be made public until this summer.
"We look at every single test question and look at how does it perform on an online mode or paper-based mode," VanderVeen said. He said the company also looks at how the question scores among different socioeconomic and racial groups.
He said students and teachers have grown more comfortable with the online assessment.
Since 2016, state education department spokesman Bill Reinhard said, more than 90 percent of tests have been completed online.
"Systems are prepared," he said.
Still, administrators at Govans, where nearly 70 percent of students come from poor families, believe the shift to online testing three years ago led to lower student scores on the PARCC than on previous paper-and-pencil assessments.
The PARCC test was written to be more rigorous than the previous assessment, and to align the state with Common Core standards.
Govans recently launched an online fundraising campaign aimed at bolstering its stock of computers.
"We had to get creative," Taylor said.
The school raised more than $42,000, enough to buy 90 laptops for students to share. Taylor said the extra resources will give students additional computer time to develop the skills necessary to take the PARCC online and succeed in 21st-century jobs.
Dozens of students worked on class assignments on the new computers one recent morning. Third-graders learned basic coding and researched the planets. Fifth-graders Googled questions about the side effects of fast-food diets for a group project on health.
Teacher Ashley Turner said her fifth-graders already have grown more comfortable with the technology since the computers arrived two months ago. Her class has gone from using computers once a week to three times a week.
"They love being on the computers," she said. "And it'll help tremendously for the test because they're practicing the skills they have to use."
Across Baltimore, 15 percent of students passed the English test and 11.9 percent passed the math PARCC last year.
City school officials say they're not blaming the so-called mode effect for poor test results.
"As a district, we're not using this as an excuse for student performance on any assessment we do," schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said.
Administrators have long raised concerns about funding for technology. State education officials told the Maryland legislature in 2014 that it would cost schools more than $100 million to buy the computers and other upgrades need to administer the PARCC tests online.
City school officials said they've bought more than 3,000 devices — the number the district concluded would be needed to fully administer the PARCC online.
"We're coming to a good place, as far as devices go," said Kenneth Thompson, the district's chief information technology officer.
Traditional public schools in Baltimore are funded through a model called "fair student funding," under which principals are given substantial control of their budgets. They decide, for example, whether to buy more computers or spend the money on other items.
As a result, the number of devices per student varies. At some elementary schools, there are roughly five students per device. At others, the ratio is one-to-one.
The schools to open under the district's 21st-century construction program — a $1 billion initiative to rebuild or renovate up to 28 schools — are designed to be equipped with one device for every two students.
Neighboring Baltimore County is spending more than $200 million to give every student a laptop by next school year.
Baltimore city schools officials provide budget guidance as principals work on crafting their spending priorities.
"When it's time to prepare school budgets, we talk about the importance of technology," said Janise Lane, the district's executive director of teaching and learning. "We try to really keep that at the forefront."
Even when students have access to computers, researchers say, the quality of technology is often uneven.
Students who produced a report for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Shriver Center in 2015 said technological problems are "particularly a concern in lower-income schools in Baltimore City."
The city students and teachers who were interviewed for the report spoke of computer crashes, answers spontaneously deleting and difficulty scrolling and highlighting text.
"These challenges are less frequently experienced by students in schools with more modern computers and technical infrastructure, which compounds the performance gap already identified between schools in high and low-income communities," the researchers concluded.
Baltimore Teachers Union president Marietta English said online testing is an added burden for teachers working with students who don't have regular access to technology.
"You have to teach both the computer and the content," she said. "It's very stressful for teachers to have to do both, knowing that this is a high-stakes test."
Stacey Davis, the district's coordinator of media and instructional technology, said the system provides professional development and training on how teachers should incorporate computers into the curriculum.
The district partners with Comcast to give students a discount on internet access at home.
"We recognize kids need better access in their homes, but we've really worked with partners to make sure we can provide some of that," Davis said.
But for some teachers, the frustrations remain.
"It's an accepted inequality to a degree," said Jesse Schneiderman, a teacher at Frederick Douglass High School. "We know this is a problem for our kids more than other kids. But we just have to keep dealing with it."