Common Core Tech. Demands Raise Budget Worries

By Leslie Harris O'Hanlon — October 15, 2012 7 min read
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In the next couple of years, most public school students will be expected to be taking tests online, instead of using pencil and paper, because of their states’ adoption of the Common Core State Standards. But in this time of tight budgets, many school districts are wondering how they will pay for improvements they may need to make to their technological infrastructure to test large numbers of students online under the common-core initiative by the 2014-15 school year.

Some districts may reallocate sizable amounts of money used for textbook purchases to pay for technology improvements, says Geoff Fletcher, the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, based in Glen Burnie, Md.

For instance, the Indiana Board of Education created a waiver for districts to use digital content instead of textbooks. Much digital content is free or available at a low cost. So that move allowed officials to shift money from textbooks to technology, Fletcher says.

“One administrator told me that his school stopped buying books,” he adds. “They now buy technology and find content to use in the classroom. He said that this changed the mindset on how textbook money could be used.”

Other districts may use money from property taxes to shore up their technology.

For example, in 2008, voters in San Francisco approved Proposition A, a $198 parcel tax per taxable property. The money pays for higher teacher salaries and school technology improvements. So far, some of the money has been used to improve network connections at schools, says Matthew Kinzie, the chief technology officer for the San Francisco Unified School District. Nevertheless, Kinzie is concerned about what additional technology his 55,000-student district will need to conduct online testing.

“We feel that we will have sufficient network capacity to handle online assessments. The challenge will be the end devices,” Kinzie says. “Is it going to be a computer, an iPad, an Android tablet, a cellphone, or something we are not thinking about right now that will be a game changer when it comes out?”

Funding is a huge issue in this economy, he adds.

“Online delivery is predicated on a wonderful idea, but it is an unfunded mandate,” he says. “We don’t see any funding for technology to implement online assessments.”

Money for Multiple Purposes

Some officials are hoping that they will be given a larger window of time to test students online because if students are required to take online assessments at the same time, many schools will not have enough computers for them to do so.

“Our technology is good, but to have a computer available for every student to take a test at a particular time, that we are not prepared for,” says Tim Hensley, an assistant to the superintendent for the 10,000-student Floyd County district in Rome, Ga.

The district is considering applying for grant funding to make it happen.

“That would be one area we would look at. But that would have to be a pretty large grant,” Hensley says. “We have used grants to add a few computer labs here and there, but to add several labs because we needed to have entire schools complete testing on the computer, that would be a significant grant, and we would be competing with a lot of other people to get that kind of grant.”

State officials in Florida have examined the technology purchases they have made to ensure that the products can be used for multiple purposes, such as online testing for the common core, says Mary Jane Tappen, the deputy chancellor of K-12 public schools for the Florida Department of Education.

“Some tools can’t be used for assessment, such as a hand-held reader that doesn’t have any network capability,” Tappen says. “So you probably don’t want to use that for testing. Districts have to make efficient use of their funding, purchasing equipment that can be used for multiple purposes.”

Florida has been doing online testing for many years and has used federal Race to the Top money to pay for technology improvements. Two years ago, Florida was awarded a $700 million competitive grant under the Race to the Top program, and it is spending more than $47 million to support a digital learning-management system that includes computer software and infrastructure to support instruction and assessment.

“By 2014-15, we will be well prepared or close to ready for common-core online testing,” Tappen says. “We may need to make more additions. But we have tried to build our infrastructure and capacity annually a little at a time, so this will not be one large requirement that needs to be taken care of at the last minute.”

A Larger Movement

Some education experts say that common-core online testing is bigger than just taking a test at a specific moment in time. Rather, it’s part of a larger movement to infuse more technology into schools, changing how teachers teach and how students learn. So, the same technology used to test students should also be used to teach students.

Therefore, the question isn’t just where the money will come from to do online assessments, Fletcher emphasizes, but where it will come from to increase technology resources and usage in schools.

“The money should be used for online assessments, instructional resources for classes, increasing access to websites, and professional development for teachers,” he says. “What we are talking about is a different way of looking at teaching and learning.”

And some experts say to fully integrate technology into the curriculum and into testing means every student should have a computer or some other computing device available to him or her at all times during school, the approach commonly known as 1-to-1 computing.

“To do this well, we have to put a device in the hands of every student. So we are looking at the evolution of technology right now and what’s the most appropriate device,” says James Harrington, the chief technology officer for the 20,500- student Hillsboro district in Oregon. “And that has ripple implications for infrastructure.”

To complicate matters, there is little money available in Oregon—or in most states—to increase the number of computer devices in a big way that would make 1-to-1 computing a reality in most schools, Harrington says.

“When a budget crisis comes, you have to make a decision to keep a teacher in front of students or to reduce or eliminate your budget for replacing computers,” he says. “Obviously, we are going to choose to reduce the amount of technology.

“So, right now, our computer fleet is aging significantly. We are looking at a number of different ways, given the funding crisis, to begin replacing them again.”

One option for Oregon is putting forth a bond measure for voter approval. The bond would increase property taxes, and the money could be used to fund capital projects, such as building new schools, improving school facilities, and upgrading technology in schools. But that money might not be enough to pay for the professional development needed for schools to best use the technology, Harrington says.

Unforeseen Challenges

For some districts that have tried online testing on a small scale, unforeseen challenges have emerged.

Melissa Gordon, the director of assessment, grants, and student services for the 5,700-student Upper Arlington school district in Ohio, helped pilot an online-testing program last May. During the testing, some students complained of eye fatigue because they weren’t used to reading on a screen for long periods of time. Also, the computer screens in the lab where students took their tests were large enough for students to look at their neighbors’ screens, potentially making cheating easier.

Such issues need to be addressed before having large-scale online testing, Gordon says.

“We would be putting kids on a device they are not used to doing tests on. We would be putting them on a device they are not used to reading from, at least for an extended period of time,” she says. “This doesn’t necessarily address the funding piece. But it does question how reliable the results will be if kids aren’t used to doing this on a regular basis.”

Also, if schools have to stagger students through computer labs over a long window of time, the first students who take the test could share with other students what’s on the test.

“How do you keep them from talking to the next group of kids who go to the lab a week later?” Gordon says. “Without one-to-one technology, schools could be opening themselves up for test-security issues.”

And the question, once again, comes around to who will pay for such technology improvements?

“We are all struggling very mightily to come up with an answer to that,” Gordon says. “It’s going to be very interesting. The vast majority of districts don’t have one-to-one technology.”

Some educators hope that the issue of needing more technology to conduct common-core testing will push lawmakers to find money to pay for technology improvements.

“Given the current state of funding for public education in California, our district needs funding across the board for everything,” Kinzie says. “So we are imploring elected officials to adequately fund education, including bringing our technology resources up to the current educational needs of our students and teachers.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Where’s the Money?

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