Having so many students taking online exams at the same time will cause a huge strain on school networks, ed-tech leaders fear.

What keeps ed-tech leaders up at night? Making sure their schools are prepared to roll out high-stakes testing to students online by the 2014-15 school year is a chief concern, said panelists during a March 11 session at the Consortium for School Networking’s 2013 national conference in San Diego.

Two multi-state consortia, the Partnership for the Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, are developing next-generation assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and students in more than 40 states will take the tests online beginning in 2014.

But having so many students taking online exams at the same time will cause a huge strain on school networks, ed-tech leaders fear.

Alabama is unique in that it supports the Common Core standards but does not belong to either PARCC or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, said Donna Williamson, technology director for the Mountain Brook City Board of Education. Instead, the state is developing its own high-stakes test to be given online.

What Williamson fears most are the “unknown and unintended consequences” of moving forward with online testing at such a huge scale, she told conference attendees. She added: “We’ve never tried to test this many students online at once before.”

Her district has a 10-gigabit network backbone, but she’s still concerned. Once the students’ test responses leave the district, “there are so many things I can’t control,” she noted.

Jason Mooneyham, executive director of education programs for computer manufacturer Lenovo, said the good news is that “the race to high-stakes online testing has led to more investment in school networks.” But this shift is happening so quickly that it’s causing a huge challenge for ed-tech leaders, he added.

School district CTOs should carefully “test the testing. Test the bandwidth,” Mooneyham advised.

Bandwidth and other infrastructure challenges aren’t the only concerns that ed-tech leaders have about online testing.

Ray Eernisse, chief information officer for Francis Howell R-III School District in Missouri, said he was worried about the need to prepare students with the skills they’ll need to take an online exam—such as the ability to find information from internet search engines and evaluate its credibility—in such a short amount of time.

The online assessments go beyond the multiple choice or short-answer responses that students are used to seeing, asking them to execute more complex tasks that require skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and even information literacy.

“The last thing we need is a drop in scores” that could result from not having enough time to prepare students for the rigor of the exams, Eernisse said.

Panelists agreed that school district leaders should prepare their stakeholders for the possibility that test scores might decline in the first year of online Common Core testing—so they’re not besieged with questions if this happens.

In terms of infrastructure, PARCC recommends that school networks supply at least 100 kilobits per second of bandwidth per student to accommodate online testing. Initial polling suggests that fewer than 10 percent of districts now meet this standard.

See also:

SETDA issues guidance to help schools prepare for online testing

Computers seen as ‘unfunded mandate’ as online testing looms

Tips for making the move to online assessments

Williamson concluded the session with some advice for ed-tech leaders:

• Create a generic login for online testing, and clear the internet cache for this login before testing begins. Also, set up this login to block internet pop-ups; in one test, a Google pop-up supplied the answer to a test question, she said.

• Make sure you train test proctors thoroughly. Proctors should know where students are supposed to log in, so they can help with any technical issues that might arise as students try to access the test.

• Know your area—and if possible, schedule online testing to avoid periods of heavy internet traffic.

Williamson explained that her district, which is located in a haven for college football, has made a point to avoid online testing around signing day, when high school recruits must declare the college they’ll attend.

“The whole Southeast is on the internet that day,” she said, looking for news of which recruits their favorite teams have signed.

Follow eSchool News Editor in Chief Dennis Pierce on Twitter at @eSN_Dennis.