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With online testing on the horizon, infrastructure could be a challenge

Within a few years, school districts in most states will have to have enough computers to allow students to take multiple tests online throughout the school year.

With new online tests being designed to reflect the Common Core standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, school districts in these states will have to replace pencil-and-paper testing with the new online exams as soon as the 2014-15 school year. But school leaders are unsure how the computers and software needed for such a move will be funded.

Last year, the federal Education Department doled out more than $300 million in Race to the Top funding to two groups of states to create next-generation assessments tied to the Common Core standards.

One of these groups, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), includes 23 states and the District of Columbia. The other group, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, includes 28 states. For now, Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina belong to both consortia—and Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia belong to neither.

A hallmark of these new next-generation state assessments is that students will take them online.

The tests will be a major change from how things traditionally have been done in many states. Rather than fill in bubbles on a multiple choice test or write answers in a blue book or on loose leaf paper, students will sit in front of computer screens several times a year answering questions online. Some questions will include the use of video.

The tests are designed to measure students’ 21st-century skills and ensure they are ready for college or a career. Testing students via computer offers many advantages, its proponents say: It allows states to design more rigorous assessments that include computer-based tasks, measuring students’ abilities in ways that a pencil-and-paper exam cannot. What’s more, the new tests are intended to be formative rather than summative in nature, meaning students will take them several times per year—and teachers will get immediate feedback they can use to inform their instruction.

But it’s unclear how much the transition to computerized testing will cost participating states or their school districts. School districts must have enough computers to allow a large number of students to take multiple tests throughout the school year.

That has some cash-strapped districts worried.

“We have lots of concerns, but not answers,” Kettering, Ohio, Superintendent Jim Schoenlein told the Dayton Daily News for a recent story. He said the state could choose to pick up the cost itself or pass it on to districts.

“I surely hope that, if they are going to mandate statewide testing, … they pick up the financial responsibility for that,” Schoenlein said. “But that’s surely no guarantee.”

Ohio is part of the PARCC consortium. If the state decides to pass on the cost of supplying the necessary infrastructure for online testing to local districts, taxpayers would have to foot the bill.

While Ohio has federal Race to the Top money to develop and implement the Common Core standards-based testing, it is uncertain how much of that money will be used to help districts install the technology they need to administer the new tests, Ohio Department of Education spokesman Dennis Evans said.

“How things are implemented and what resources there are, that’s a conversation that is still ongoing,” Evans said.

Trotwood-Madison, Ohio, Superintendent Rexann Wagner met with her district curriculum and technology directors about the subject earlier this month.

Trotwood-Madison officials are trying to determine how many computers they’ll need and if their wireless capability is sufficient so there isn’t a system crash during testing time. “All of those things are part of our discussions,” Wagner said.

Some schools welcome the new testing, regardless of the challenges it might entail.

“I think online testing is the way to go,” said Huber Heights, Ohio, Superintendent William Kirby, who added that his district will be ready when the new testing rolls out.

Teachers “are able to use those results much more quickly in adjusting their instruction,” he explained in supporting the move.

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