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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are Schools Prepared for Online State Assessments?

By Peter DeWitt — March 12, 2013 5 min read
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Will ALL urban, rural and suburban schools be ready when high stakes testing goes on-line?

Many educators are proponents of using technology throughout the school day. They believe that technology is not an add-on and that most students use it naturally as if it is merely another appendage. You can’t walk into a mall or restaurant without seeing someone with a Smartphone in their hand. It is a billion dollar industry and the companies behind the devices typically have some of the best commercials to advertise their products.

Principals, and other school leaders, do formal observations on their iPads because it cuts down the time it takes to do an observation. It also helps lead by example and sends a message to students that their teachers and principals are current. By using technology, we model our 21st century skills. As much as I enjoy using technology for research, writing, social networking and observations, I would not consider myself a technology enthusiast. I do not have the latest gadgets and enjoy unplugging from time to time.

There is no doubt that technology has helped make research easier. Everything we want is at our fingertips. As we get further and further into the 21st century there are more and more benefits to technology but schools are not always prepared for every facet of using these tools. One of the problems schools are facing is what to do when state assessments go on-line.

High Stakes Technology
It was only a matter of time before high stakes testing went on-line. After all, this is the 21st century and most state assessments have been paper and pencil since high stakes testing began in the mid-90’s. From an outside perspective it sounds like a good thing...if you like state assessments. Seriously, instead of wasting all of that paper, and schools can no longer keep unused tests any way, everything can be done on-line.

Our students are so tech savvy that it will be a natural shift for them, right?

It sounds easy enough. Instead of students sitting at desks taking the paper and pencil exam, they will be able to sit at their personal computers and take a more interactive exam. They can wear headphones and complete the exam like some kind of on-line game. Unfortunately, it sounds easier that it really is, and schools are not prepared for when this will happen in the next couple of years.

Everyone can agree that the public school system was behind where technology is concerned. Teachers and administrators didn’t see the importance, and some of them still don’t. There are educators who believe computers should be banned from schools. This, of course, will really be a problem for them when the tests go on-line.

However, the issue with technology is not all the school system’s fault. Technology costs money. Not just for the actual computers but for the technology staff who need to make sure computers are constantly updated. It also means there needs to be a replacement plan because desktops are being replaced with iPads and netbooks. In addition, the programs that are used in the teaching of math or ELA cost money, and with the recent budget cuts that have been happening around the country, keeping up with technology has not been easy.

What’s the Real Issue?
There are so many issues schools have to consider when using technology, and on-line assessments will only add to those issues. When giving a state exam, teachers and administrators have to make sure that the tests are secure. Using the computer, open students up to the ability to multi-task, which they can do, and they could start using Google, Bing or some other on-line search engine.

High stakes testing has brought a new era of accountability and most states focus on what will happen when students, principals or teachers will cheat, so all of the educators who give the tests will be on edge the day these assessments go on-line. In addition, schools will have to look at the number of students they have in each grade level, and if different classes in the same grade levels take the test at different times, schools will have to create alternative schedules. Students are not allowed to talk during the exam, and will certainly not be able to talk if one class took the exam and one class was still waiting to take it.

The following are some of the other issues schools will have to worry about:
Bandwidth - In some school districts, other departments (i.e. business office, special education, etc.) may not be able to use computers during testing times if schools do not have the proper bandwidth. It’s not all bad, perhaps if schools increase bandwidth they can begin the process of BYOD.
Enough Devices - Most schools simply do not have enough devices for each student. And if they do, these devices have to be secure.
Testing windows - There will have to be a specific schedule to allow for all grade levels to take the test securely because of the above concern that there are not enough computers.
Security - Schools will have to buy specific software that will block students from the ability to get on other websites where they can find answers to the questions on the test.
Tech Staff - What happens when the computer shuts down? Will the student lose everything they did? Will the test automatically save information?
• Assessments - What will the assessments look like? Will they be multiple choice and narrative?
Narratives - What will the narratives look like? How much time will students be given to type? Most teachers are using netbooks and desktops so students should be able to type a narrative but how long will they be given? Typing a narrative is different when you’re being timed.

Schools are not designed to be testing centers. Although these on-line assessments are one or two years away, the planning needs to begin now. State education departments who are providing these on-line assessments must listen to district input and offer guidance to schools so they can get ready. The stakes are just too high these days to sit back and wait.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.