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Online assessments a challenge for states rethinking Common Core

School districts in states undecided on Common Core remain focused but nimble as spring 2015 assessment deadline looms

assessment-commonReceiving a mandate to support Common Core assessments can be challenging enough for a district IT team, but what happens when your state is yo-yo’ing on Common Core and debating whether it will continue to embrace the standards or implement its own approach? That’s precisely what Sheryl Abshire, CTO at Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Lake Charles, La., is grappling with right now.

The Common Core argument in Louisiana is highly charged and political in nature, but in a nutshell, the state’s commitment to adopting the new standards has been challenged on several fronts. For example, originally backed by Louisiana’s governor and state superintendent, a PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing contract was recently cancelled and an overall feeling that Common Core was “not right for the state” began to prevail, says Abshire.

“That came as somewhat of a shock for practitioners, both in terms of the technology and the curriculum itself,” says Abshire, who has been in public education for more than 40 years. Over the last few years, she and other K-12 IT experts have put a lot of time and energy into prepping their schools for Common Core assessments. In 2013, for example, many parishes field-tested the PARCC assessment and examined key points such as bandwidth capacity (e.g., will certain applications need to be shut down to free up bandwidth for the testing?), desktop computer availability, and potential demand/usage by students.

(Next page: Ready, but nimble)

Louisiana also completed a major infrastructure and hardware survey to determine the readiness of all districts in the state. Every district received a ranking, according to Abshire, whose district was deemed “ready,” according to the survey. “We passed because we put the time and effort into building infrastructure and upgrading hardware,” she says, “to be able to deliver on the promise to adequately assess student learning without any technological barriers.”

Ready, but nimble

Suddenly forced to be “ready but nimble,” the same practitioners are in flux as the state’s leaders decide whether to move forward with the statewide initiative…or not. With the governor recently filing suit against the U.S. Department of Education over the issue, Abshire and her colleagues could be in this position for some time.

“Districts and educational leaders are basically asking, ‘Are we going to do Common Core or not?’” Abshire states. “The State Department of Education says ‘yes,’ and the politicians feel otherwise.”

As the various factions that have chimed in on the Common Core issue remain at odds, Abshire says the leadership teams and thousands of trained educators and practitioners are attempting to prep for the spring 2015 Common Core assessment deadline. “It’s a hotbed of controversy that’s put the educational system between a rock and a hard place,” says Abshire. “The question is, what do you rip out–a Common Core-aligned curriculum? Then do you teach like you did two years ago, knowing that it’s not aligned to the assessment?”

On a positive note, Abshire says the K-12 technology component has been addressed and is in place and ready to use regardless of the outcome of the current political argument and lawsuit. At both a state and local level, she says districts have spent roughly three years building out the necessary infrastructure and hardware capacity needed to tackle the job. “We’re in pretty good shape in this state because we were being proactive as opposed to reactive,” says Abshire.

One proactive move that the state made early on was to assign technology facilitators to schools based on enrollment. Those schools that didn’t meet the minimum enrollment numbers were assigned “lead teachers” (aka, tech contact teachers) who are paid via stipend to support the school’s technology infrastructure. Teachers also have access to an extensive “help” website that, for example, gives them fast access to support when they need to get a cartful of inoperable laptops up and running.

“For the most part, that support is provided by remotely accessing different machines and fixing them,” Abshire explains. “If it’s a hardware issue, where the power supply is gone or a hard drive is toasted, then a ticket is issued and the equipment is brought into our district office for repair.”

Prepping for more uncertainty

As far as what the future holds, Abshire says the issue is up to the “will of the state and what it decides to do.” With parents also getting on board against Common Core in the state, she says trying to remain responsive to the community while also preparing to support the Common Core has been a real challenge for her department. “In many ways, school districts are compliant organizations that are run by rule and policy,” says Abshire. “Our state still has Common Core as the adopted standards for the state, so that’s what we’re working towards.”

To schools’ IT directors challenged by similar problems in their own states, Abshire sees continued infrastructure, capacity, and network reliability testing as a smart move. “Make sure you can deliver online testing in a way that’s not only reliable and dependable, but that also truly tests student knowledge,” says Abshire. “That’s why we’re doing all this in the first place, and ignoring this underlying goal would be a crime.”

This challenge is evident in education research, as well. Two reports from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) focus on Common Core-aligned assessments, curriculum, and professional development and highlight states’ progress and challenges.

When it comes to Common Core-aligned assessments developed by assessment consortia PARCC and Smarter Balanced, states are working to implement Common Core curriculum, but school leaders aren’t yet sure if the assessments developed by the consortia will offer an improvement over existing assessments or will offer enough data to influence instructional practice.

The CEP reports also reveal that more than 80 percent of districts in states adopting the Common Core are already teaching with Common Core-aligned materials. Two-thirds of districts said most of their teachers and principals received at least some Common Core-related professional development as of the 2014-2015 school year.

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Laura Ascione

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