Special Report
School & District Management

Districts Tackle Technology Gaps

By Amanda M. Fairbanks — March 10, 2014 8 min read
Student teacher Jayne Hubbell works with students in a kindergarten class at Buena Vista Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn.
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Brandt Redd likens some of the panic surrounding the coming common-core online assessments to the hysteria preceding y2k, when many predicted that the inability of computers to make the shift from 1999 to 2000 would result in widespread virtual devastation.

As was the case then, Mr. Redd, the chief technology officer of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, thinks the careful planning currently underway in many school districts around the country will likely result in a similarly averted crisis—with administrators and teachers feverishly scrambling to update their technology inventories in time for the assessments his and other groups are developing for the Common Core State Standards.

Even so, ed-tech experts say the gap between districts that appear to be well prepared to put those tests in place and those that aren’t is significant and could pose challenges down the road. Some districts are already piloting common-core tests, while others are just getting started in figuring out how to build up their technological bandwidth in preparation for them.

“Yes, there are a lot of districts that still aren’t prepared, but there is a lot of preparation going on to make sure they’ll be ready in time,” said Mr. Redd. “Many aren’t ready yet, but I think they’ll get there.”

A recent report by the State Educational Technology Directors Association, a Glen Burnie, Md.-based nonprofit, suggests the readiness concerns are justified, indicating that 72 percent of schools do not meet the basic Internet bandwidth requirements of 100 kilobits per second per student set by the association, or the minimum of what’s required to run a schoolwide 1-to-1 computing environment.

Further, a 2013 survey conducted by the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking and Market Data Retrieval, a Shelton, Conn.-based education market research firm, found that an overwhelming 99 percent of districts indicated a need for increased connectivity. It also found that only 57 percent of elementary schools and 64 percent of secondary schools had wireless Internet capability.

Later this spring, the 23 states included in the Smarter Balanced consortium, will participate in a field test. Its purpose is to gauge each district’s readiness in advance of next year’s formal assessments. Or, as Mr. Redd explained, “It’s testing the test, as opposed to testing the students.”

The 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, are also planning similar field tests this spring.

Closing Tech Gaps

Whatever bumpy ride this technological preparation takes, experts say online assessments are the undeniable wave of the future, and not just for common-core tests. They see online tests, and adaptive ones in particular, as a key tool for building personalized learning programs that address individual students’ strengths and weaknesses.

Ed-Tech Challenges


A survey of 250 district ed-tech leaders posed the question: What are your top three challenges for putting in place technology-enabled learning environments?


SOURCE: Consortium for School Networking

Last month, the Consortium for School Networking, the eLearn Institute, and Education Networks of America jointly released a white paper that analyzed the practical steps districts of various sizes had undertaken to prepare for online testing. The white paper examined three districts—Nashville, Tenn.; Warren Township, Ind.; and West Side in Idaho—and highlighted the specific hurdles each faces in working to close technology gaps. Thomas Ryan, the CEO of eLearn Institute, a Wyomissing, Pa.-based nonprofit that works to transform education through the effective implementation of digital-learning tools, and the co-author of the white paper, said the time for excuses is over.

When traveling the country, Mr. Ryan still sees a troubling number of districts continuing to drag their feet, taking what he describes as a “this too shall pass” approach. “The thinking being, ‘Maybe we can play this slow and miss this one,’ ” he said.

Many districts cite limited resources as an impediment to change. But Mr. Ryan counters that districts need to be more efficient and innovative in how they spend the money they already have.

Nashville teacher Michael Taub examines technology training materials at an "All Star Training" session designed to help prepare educators to get their students ready for the common-core testing.

“We can’t fund all the old methods of teaching and learning. We can’t maintain the old environment and the new environment. There’s no new money,” he said. “Part of the answer is that we have the money, but we’re spending it on things that represent an era gone by.”

Regardless of the debate about how to spend money, Mr. Ryan sees the common core as providing a badly needed push in the right direction. He said the technological preparation for the online tests is forcing districts to put technology programs in place that they should have started years ago.

“If we put it off for three more years, we would be at the exact same point three years from now. It needs to be last-minute, or nothing gets done,” he said. “We’re moving technology from a specialty or marginal program and finally placing it on central stage.”

Still, Mr. Ryan cautioned, the clock is ticking, with districts that are only beginning the process likely facing a difficult road ahead. “If students don’t have a year of practice with the devices, just having them available for the assessment will be more of a test of their technology skills than their content awareness,” said Mr. Ryan, who sees poor children at a particular disadvantage when it comes to equitable access.

District Snapshots

1. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools

Nashville, Tenn.
Enrollment: 87,000

Bandwidth concerns aside, Kecia Ray, the executive director of learning technology for the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which employs 6,000 teachers, is finding the teaching piece of the common-core puzzle far trickier to navigate than expected.

Currently, the district has about 60,000 digital devices in its stockpile—a combination of desktops, laptops, tablets, and netbooks. But with many showing significant wear and tear, the district plans to add 12,000 more by the end of this calendar year.

As a member of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, an 18-state consortium better known as PARCC, Tennessee will participate in field tests later this spring and online assessments by the 2014-15 school year. When talking with colleagues across the state and the country, Ms. Ray considers the district’s technology inventory to be about average.

When it comes time to take an assessment, she believes that testing should occur in the same environment as instruction. “Lining students up and taking them to labs doesn’t provide an authenticity of assessment,” said Ms. Ray. “You should be in the same space where instruction took place and with the same devices.”

Within three years, the district plans to have enough devices in its arsenal to meet a 1-to-1 computing goal. In the meantime, each school will deploy carts containing class-sets of laptops for this spring’s field tests. Each cart comes equipped with enough devices to test the largest class at one time. And for testing in the spring of 2015, the carts will rotate among each grade until testing is complete.

“Assessment is not an event. It’s part of the instructional process,” said Ms. Ray. “It doesn’t need to be an event when you add technology to it. I think we’re in a good place. We’re getting there.”

2. West Side School District

Dayton, Idaho
Enrollment: 635

Spencer Barzee, who serves as both the superintendent and middle school principal for the rural district, where more than half of students receive either free or reduced-price lunches, said the common-core preparation is creating significant pressure to raise academic rigor, improve professional development, and upgrade technology simultaneously.

As a small district, West Side doesn’t have the resources to hire separate curriculum developers, with the principal of each school typically responsible for providing professional development. Further, the district employs one instructional technology manager, who also works as a classroom teacher.

The district recently received a grant to equip its 140 middle school students in grades 6 to 8 with individual iPads. When it comes time to take the Smarter Balanced field tests later this spring, middle school students will take them on their iPads, with elementary and high school students rotating through computer labs.

“We get better results if we test our kids in the morning than the afternoon,” explained Mr. Barzee. Each of the district’s three computer labs contains a mixture of Hewlett-Packard and Dell desktop computers. “We put students on a rotation before lunch. The middle school is easier. They can do it at anytime, in any class.”

Nevertheless, lack of adequate and aging school computers is a concern, particularly when the district runs the Smarter Balanced assessments while simultaneously streaming online content as part of daily instruction. “We’ve never tried to stream 200 computers at the same time with video,” said Mr. Barzee, whose colleagues in other districts plan to halt demands on their networks to ensure that sufficient bandwidth is available come assessment time.

3. Metropolitan School District of Warren Township

Indianapolis, Ind.
Enrollment: 11,500

When scanning the landscape, Mr. Ryan of the eLearn Institute counts the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township in Indianapolis, Ind. as a prime example of a school system leading the way. In September, the district put in place a 1-to-1 computing program for grades 1 to 12 after winning a competitive Race to the Top grant.

John B. Keller, Warren’s director of eLearning, who formerly worked for Indiana’s Department of Education, explained that the state has yet to decide whether to participate in Smarter Balanced, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or create its own assessment.

Four years ago, Indiana began requiring schools to administer computer-based assessments throughout the state. Although every student in Warren has his or her own Chromebook (with iPads used in kindergarten), the devices aren’t compatible with the current state tests, but they are compatible with common-core tests.

“We’re thrilled with the Chromebooks, which we consider an exciting device instructionally,” said Mr. Keller, who recently completed his first year with the district. “But we still have computer labs, and that’s where the testing will be done.”

Though many assume a 1-to-1 computing environment is necessary when administering online assessments, Mr. Keller explained that you simply need enough computers to accommodate each school’s largest class. The easy part, explained Mr. Keller, was getting the devices.

“The more enduring challenge has been to ensure that our staff is properly equipped to use them effectively. That’s really been the hardest part.”


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