Published Online: September 30, 2013
Published in Print: October 2, 2013, as Technology Readiness for Online Testing

Districts Upgrade Tech Ahead of Common-Core Testing

Hoping to avoid the widespread technical failures that caused online testing breakdowns in a number of states last spring, education officials are communicating regularly with testing providers and planning dress rehearsals far ahead of the next rounds of online tests in 2013-14.

"Districts need to have a punch list and make sure they have everything they need to be ready,” said Keith R. Krueger, the CEO of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or COSN, a professional association for school district technology leaders. "But they also have to understand that high-stakes testing is a complicated environment. They're not going to be able to control everything.”

Though more breakdowns likely are inevitable given online testing's relatively new place in schools, the ability to protect the validity, integrity, and security of the process is increasingly crucial as districts in 46 states—those that have adopted the Common Core State Standards—gear up for mandatory online assessments starting in 2014-15.

In the meantime, states that dealt with disruptions in online testing are going through checklists: Do districts have enough bandwidth? A strong infrastructure? Are testing providers doing all they can to prevent a repeat performance?

Ken Draut, an associate commissioner of education in the Kentucky Department of Education's office of assessment and accountability, said his state put Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc. "on notice” after problems with online end-of-course exams were reported in about 25 of its 174 districts.

"They have to show us their system works," he said, "or we'll abandon the online model this year.”

A stress test scheduled for mid-November will put 20,000 students statewide on the testing provider's system at one time, Mr. Draut said, adding that he's "confident that at a state level, our infrastructure has enough bandwidth and access to support online testing for all kids." The students will take a full battery of sample tests. Given the state's estimate that it will have roughly 15,000 students taking official tests on any given day next spring, a successful outcome would provide assurances, although ACT isn't off the hook. Mr. Draut said the state will continue to have weekly meetings with the company through next May.

In Oklahoma, about 3,000 of the 300,000 students taking the exams last spring experienced problems like being logged out of tests and unable to restart.

Eric S. Hileman, the executive director of information technology for the 40,000-student Oklahoma City schools, said department heads are examining "granular-level data"—in addition to the technology-readiness tools developed by testing providers ctb/McGraw-Hill and Pearson—to help determine the root cause of the breakdowns in his district.

Meanwhile, despite the movement toward wireless education in recent years, testing providers "are saying they need us wired for better performance," said Mr. Hileman. "From a cost perspective, we weren't prepared for that."

Steps for Better Assessment

• Communicate with the testing provider.
Have regular conversations about potential problems and how to avoid them. Be clear about contractual obligations on such matters as technical support and troubleshooting on testing days.

• Know your district's bandwidth.
Upgrade the network if necessary, taking into account that use of multiple devices—including wireless ones­—puts a significant strain on traditional infrastructures.

• Plan a dress rehearsal.
Test the testing process by giving a full battery of sample assessments to more students at one time than are expected on official test days.

• Don't expect perfection.
Online testing is still evolving, so growing pains will continue. Do the best you can to be prepared, and learn from your mistakes.

In the midst of building gyms for the district's 46 elementary schools, work that began after a bond measure passed in 2007, the district now is wiring them during construction to support mass testing.

At the same time, Oklahoma City is using testing provider Edusoft for benchmark testing this fall to see whether similar issues pop up. There have been sporadic problems so far, but nothing officials believe would signal a significant setback. Whatever testing provider the district winds up using, there will be a dress rehearsal next spring.

"There are a lot of places where things can break down in a district this size," Mr. Hileman said, including slow response times and updates. "Right now, our focus is on providing the most reliable connection to the outside world for those testing companies, and once that is finished, the rest will fall into place. I have rather rose-colored glasses, but that's my hope."

Bandwidth is a critical concern for many districts. In a fall 2013 national survey of school district leaders conducted by COSN and Market Data Retrieval, or MDR, an education market-research firm based in Shelton, Conn., 99 percent of respondents indicated a need for more Internet bandwidth and connectivity in the next 36 months.

Paper-and-Pencil Option

The 90,000-student Albuquerque school system in New Mexico fixed online testing troubles several years ago with fiber network upgrades and new network-management tools. The district will continue encouraging staff members not to stream videos, listen to online music, or use other high-bandwidth applications during testing windows, said Tom Ryan, the chief executive officer of the eLearn Institute, a nonprofit company based in Wyomissing, Pa., that aims to transform learning through digital education. He is the district’s former chief information officer and a COSN board member.

A positive performance on Kentucky's November stress test might not be enough to alleviate concerns about online breakdowns for Robert Rodosky and Erica Thompson, the co-assessment coordinators for the state’s largest district, the 101,500-student Jefferson County school system, which includes the city of Louisville.

With six testing windows throughout the year, they had doubts about online reliability when in April 2013 some computer screens froze during the fifth testing window. Despite the fact that only a small number of students were affected, and those students were able to finish the tests at a later time, the coordinators decided to go with paper-and-pencil tests for the final and largest testing window. They made that decision despite assurances from the state that all problems were solved.

Related Blog

From what they've witnessed since in other states, that solution may be the method of choice for a while.

"As of right now, in my eyes, we're doing paper-and-pencil tests all year," said Ms. Thompson. "We'll see what happens with the stress test, and if all goes well, we will have a conversation. But this is high-stakes testing. We just can't afford to take any risks."

For the greatest success rate with online testing, districts need to plan ahead.

Said COSN's Mr. Krueger: "This is a puzzle, and we have to make sure everyone understands what they're responsible for in putting the puzzle together."

Vol. 33, Issue 06, Page s22

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