A first-ever national assessment of student skills in using computers as writing tools indicates that teens from lower-income families face a distinct disadvantage.
For example, only 12 percent of eighth-graders from low-income homes almost always used computers for writing assignments, according to a federal report released Friday. For more affluent teens, the comparable figure was 21 percent.
Education officials described the gap as disturbing, given that so much written communication now is conducted via laptops, tablets or desktop computers. They noted, however, that factors other than family income might play a part in limiting some students' computer access.
"Students who go to college or into the workplace without being able to write on computers are seriously disadvantaged," said Arthur Applebee, an education professor at the University at Albany.
Applebee is a longtime consultant to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally financed agency that issued the report.
National Assessment periodically tests students in writing and other academic subjects, but the latest writing test was the first conducted on computers. The test, administered in 2011, involved a national sample of more than 52,000 students in grades eight and 12.
Along with an income gap, the groundbreaking computer study found racial and ethnic disparities in achievement.
Among 12th-graders, 38 percent of Asian-Americans and 34 percent of whites scored at proficient or advanced levels in writing. The same was true for only 12 percent of Hispanics and 9 percent of African-Americans.
William Powell, who, as a civic volunteer, has analyzed educational achievement in the Roosevelt community, said that lack of opportunity starts at an early age. Powell added that, for reasons largely financial, fewer minority youngsters than whites have access to iPads and other devices that would allow them to become familiar with electronic keyboards early on.
"There very definitely exists a digital divide between minority communities and nonminority communities," Powell said.
Across Long Island, schools increasingly use computers for tests. Computers have their limits when applied to writing assignments, however.
Often, he said, laptop computers must be wheeled into classrooms on carts, and only for temporary periods. McAuliffe applauded the National Assessment's new emphasis on using computers in writing.
"We have to move in that direction," he said. "That's mostly the way kids compose -- and I think adults, too."