With the approach of online assessments, three districts are tackling the challenge
Online assessments are a key part of the Common Core State Standards, but these new assessments don’t come without obstacles. Adequate high-speed internet access, infrastructure, computers, funding, and manpower are just a few of states’ top concerns when it comes to properly implementing and administering online assessments in the next year.
Here’s a look at how three different states or districts are approaching online assessments. And while each approach is different, school leaders often share the same concerns.
Many schools don’t have the technology needed to give New Mexico’s new online standardized assessment scheduled for statewide adoption next year. School districts still have a year to prepare, but technology departments must hustle to make sure their schools have the computers, internet routers, and bandwidth necessary to comply with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career  (PARCC) exam, which replaces the statewide paper-and-pencil test.
(Next page: Devices, internet, and field testing the assessments)School officials are anxious about the switch because like the former assessment, PARCC will affect graduation requirements, teacher evaluations, and report cards given to schools.
“It’s all kind of scary, especially if it’s as high stakes as it’s supposed to be,” said Hatch Valley Superintendent Linda Hale.
As of December, 75 percent of the state’s schools had enough computers — one computer for every five students — and 85 percent had the necessary bandwidth to administer PARCC, according to a January Legislative Finance Committee report. The figures were based on a Public Education Department survey.
For big districts, like Albuquerque Public Schools, having enough computers is more likely to be an issue, while small rural districts are more likely to struggle with bandwidth, said Paul Romero, APS chief technology officer.
Romero said APS has enough bandwidth but he’s not sure it has enough computers. “It really is a question mark at this time,” he said.
Romero said PED’s survey might be misleading because not all computers will work for PARCC. For example, the screens on some computer tablets owned by APS might be too small, and others might need new operating systems, he said.
The PED is following up with districts to get an accurate count on computers that will meet PARCC requirements, said Leighann Lenti, PED deputy secretary for policy and programs.
Meanwhile, the PED will give $5.2 million to districts to spend on needed technology upgrades, which state lawmakers approved last year. Lenti said districts have until July to spend the money.
Hale said her district has pretty good bandwidth, and with 1,250 students, it’s small enough that it shouldn’t struggle with computers.
Still, the district must buy additional internet routers to ensure students taking the test on wireless computers have solid internet access, Hale said. Hatch Valley will receive $9,000 of the $2.5 million PED dispersed, she said.
During a recent APS School Board committee meeting, officials said they’re concerned PARCC’s website might crash during testing. A crash could throw a monkey wrench into test schedules, which will be very tight given all students who need to take the exam, Romero said.
PARCC officials said they anticipate hiccups when the assessment is rolled out, but they have safeguards to protect against a crash or lapses in Internet connections. For example, schools can download the exam the day before it’s given, said Susan Van Gundy, associate director, technology, at PARCC.
This cuts down on the bandwidth needed to give the test and would allow students to continue with the test even if an internet connection was lost, Van Gundy said. She said a lapse in internet connection shouldn’t hurt outgoing test responses because they’re stored on the school’s network server and then sent to PARCC’s website.
In New Mexico, 420 schools volunteered to pilot the PARCC assessment in March, including 42 APS schools. Pilot tests won’t be graded, Van Gundy said.
Testing the tests in California
California schools are racing to add computers and improve internet access in preparation for the debut next school year of state computerized assessments for students.
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.
“The field test of the new assessment system will help districts find out where they need to tune up their programs to be fully prepared for implementation.” Gordon said.
Ensuring device availability
Knox County Schools is making progress on upgrading its entire infrastructure to be ready for new online assessments that begin in the next school year.
Gail Byard, the district’s chief technology officer, told members of the school board during a recent midmonth meeting that they have completed wiring 52 schools and will complete the remaining 27 schools by the end of the summer.
“Right now we are in the process of assessing each site individually,” she said. “We have technicians going out to each building and they are tagging those machines that are ready for the PARCC assessments, and by ready for PARCC that means they meet the specifications we use for the assessment.”
PARCC will move current TCAP and EOC state testing in math and English to an online format and bring them in line with Common Core standards.
Byard said the recommendation from PARCC is for school systems to have a device — a laptop, iPad, or computer — for each student in their largest grade level, so they have been taking enrollments from each school and estimating the number of devices they will need.
According to her presentation, Byard said if the district had to give the assessments today, the worst case scenario would be that they need 8,496 more devices across all school levels, while the best scenario — which includes iPads that would need an external keyboard and the use of staff devices — would be about 5,000 additional devices.
“Somewhere in the middle of those two, the worse-case and the best-case scenario, is going to the real truth, which is how many devices we have on hand,” Byard said. “This is a little bit of a bleak picture, but it is getting better every day.
She anticipated the school system, in a best-case scenario, will need about $3.8 million to fund the technology initiative. A worst-case scenario would costs the district about $6.4 million.
School board members also heard an update from three of the district’s school technology challenge winners. Last year, the district held an internal competition that selected schools to begin their own 1-to-1 technology effort — or one technology device for each student and teacher.
As part of the initiative, the school system distributed 6,449 MacBooks and 759 iPads at the winning schools.
©2014 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.). Visit the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) at www.abqjournal.com . ©2014 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.). Visit The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at www.sacbee.com . ©2014 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.). Visit the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.) at www.knoxnews.com . Distributed by MCT Information Services.