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Top ed-tech stories to watch: Online testing looms

No. 1 on our list of key ed-tech stories for the new school year is the struggle for schools to prepare for Common Core testing

Preparing for the exams involves much more than making sure schools have the bandwidth and devices to support every student online.

[Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of stories examining five key ed-tech developments to watch for the 2014-15 school year.]

Next spring, new state exams tied to the Common Core standards in reading and math will be given for the first time in more than 40 states—and there are big questions about whether schools and students will be ready.

Students will be taking the exams online, and a lack of technology or training in some schools—especially those in rural areas—could make administering the new tests a challenge.

“We could be in trouble,” Donald Childs, administrator of the Unified School District of Antigo, in north central Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We haven’t had an opportunity to test rural schools that just got wireless access to see if there is adequate bandwidth to administer the exams during the state testing window.”

Childs isn’t alone in his anxiety. A national survey of school technology leaders earlier this year found that preparing for online high-stakes tests was their No. 1 concern, said Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a professional ed-tech organization.

CoSN has created a toolkit to help ed-tech leaders prepare for online testing, and many school districts have been testing their network capacity in anticipation of the exams. But there’s a difference between conducting a trial run and the real thing, Krueger acknowledged.

“Everyone’s kind of waiting to see how it goes, and if they’re really ready,” he said.

Preparing for the exams involves much more than making sure schools have the bandwidth and devices to support every student online.

(Next page: Other considerations in becoming ‘assessment ready’)

“The big question is: Are the kids ready for this type of testing?” said Carol Hughes, an ed-tech consultant and the former manager of information technology for the Oak Creek Franklin Joint School District in Wisconsin, which took the new Common Core aligned practice tests this past spring.

“It’s way different than fill in A, B, C, or D,” she said. “Some terminology is different, like instead of saying ‘select’ something, the question says ‘highlight.’ And questions go deeper into a text passage than before. You couldn’t just guess the answer.”

The new tests will require changes to instruction, but schools also will have to work with students to get them used to taking tests in the new online format.

In field testing in Colorado this past spring, 48 percent of students who took the state math assessment online said they preferred the old paper format, and 52 percent said they’d rather take it on a computer.

Tom Ryan, a CoSN board member and retired chief technology officer for the Albuquerque Public Schools, leads CoSN’s “Becoming Assessment Ready” initiative. He said a key barrier to this effort in schools is the fact that officials in charge of assessment, instruction, and IT too often work in independent silos.

“Without a collaborative, cross-functional strategic planning team, it’s hard to gauge true readiness,” Ryan said.

The school districts that are best positioned for new online exams not only have such a cross-functional team in place; they also offer classroom access to technology for teaching as well as testing.

“The schools that will see the most success are the ones where technology is woven into everyday instruction,” Ryan said.

Kari Flitz, chief academic officer at Milwaukee College Prep’s network of charter schools, said sixth and seventh graders had difficulty with the pilot versions of the tests.

“They completely struggled,” Flitz said. “They couldn’t identify what they were supposed to do, where the question was in the problem.”

School leaders responded by implementing a new math curriculum and delivering professional development to their teachers last year. They also purchased an online testing program aligned with the Common Core standards and worked with students on their keyboarding skills.

“There’s always going to be state accountability,” Flitz said. “We just have to do what we need to prepare our students for the transition.”

Material from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) was used in this report. © 2014; distributed by MCT Information Services.

See also:

Top ed-tech stories to watch, No. 5: Maker movement makes waves

Top ed-tech stories to watch, No. 4: Schools grapple with data privacy

Top ed-tech stories to watch, No. 3: From 1-to-1 to ‘one to many’

Top ed-tech stories to watch, No. 2: eRate gets a facelift

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