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3 approaches to online assessments

Sacramento-area school districts have spent millions of dollars in the past two years upgrading their broadband connections and buying computers and other technology so thousands of students can simultaneously take the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, which will replace the former pencil-and-paper STAR test.

The computerized assessments will measure how well students grasp the new Common Core standards, a set of national guidelines that California and 44 other states have embraced as the next big shift in teaching. Common Core stresses critical thinking, problem solving and the use of technology.

The arrival of these standards – and the accompanying assessments – have put the purchase of computers at the top of every district’s priority list. The Legislature boosted the effort by making $1.25 billion available this school year for computers, bandwidth and training. School districts also passed bonds, dipped into their general funds and used federal technology dollars.

A recent survey by the Sacramento County Office of Education found that 86 percent of the districts in the county say they’ll be ready to test students with computers at all their schools in 2014-15, said David Gordon, county schools chief. Overall, 75 percent of the state’s school districts say all of their schools will be ready for the computerized exam.

That doesn’t mean all students will have a computer of their own, however.

Terry Kritsepis, assistant superintendent of information education technology at Sacramento City Unified School District, said the district and most others around the state will roll computer-filled carts, known as COWs, or computers on wheels, from class to class. The COWs also will be used for instruction throughout the year.

After buying 6,372 computers, Sacramento City Unified now has enough to test all its students in a 10-day window, Kritsepis said.

School internet access varies across the county. San Juan Unified has installed a wireless access point in every classroom and continues to install access points to increase capacity. Folsom Cordova Unified has internet access at each school site but is still working on installing wireless at five of its schools.

Sacramento City Unified has had high-speed internet access at all of its schools for at least the last three or four years, but the system hardware needed updates, which are ongoing.

“In some cases they were held together with tape and bubble gum,” said Gabe Ross, district spokesman at Sacramento City Unified. “There weren’t enough switches or wireless routers for all the campuses, and in some cases, wiring wasn’t always inside the walls.”

Twin Rivers Unified enlisted 3,000 of its students to test its broadband capacity and to give students a chance to try out the new exams. Hagginwood Elementary fourth-grader Juliesha Thompson clicked on lawn chairs on the left of her computer screen and dropped them one by one onto the yard displayed on the right. Her goal: move 27 chairs onto the grass.

The district’s technology staff, meanwhile, monitored the district’s broadband to see how it was holding up under the pressure of so much traffic.

The test of the system showed the district is ready to handle thousands of students taking the computerized test at once. Technicians at each school and a wall of computer monitors at district headquarters showed that all the schools’ internet connections were working.

“I feel pretty good about where we are,” Zeman, said, as she watched a group of students testing the system.

Some parents are concerned that some children, especially younger ones not as familiar with technology, may be at a disadvantage in the testing. Despite the high number of schools statewide that say they will be ready for the assessment, only 60 percent are teaching keyboarding skills to students this year.

“This is an area we are working on,” Ross said, of teaching keyboarding skills. “It’s not something we will have before field testing.”

A state-mandated field test of the system started in March. Between March and June, tens of thousands of local students in grades 3-8 and 9-11 will go online to take exams that include multiple-choice and essay questions. Students will need to drag and drop answers, and work with graphs and charts.

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