Squeezed for time and short of money, school districts are turning to a familiar source, the federal E-rate program, to help them cover the potentially high costs of upgrading technology to meet the anticipated demands of new common, multistate assessments.
District officials are requesting to use those federal funds—which provide schools with discounts on the costs of improving telecommunications services and Internet access—to help them take a variety of steps necessary to administer online tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Those uniform academic expectations have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, and the related tests will be given for the first time during the 2014-15 academic year.
The technology improvements include increasing bandwidth, or the amount of data that can be handled by a network or Internet connection at one time, and revamping internal Internet systems to improve the speed and capability for handling the crunch of online usage created by the tests.
Many schools and districts are only now applying to use E-rate aid to help with the common-core assessments, though some that anticipated that challenge are already using federal funds for that purpose, according to those who advise school districts on the E-rate or are familiar with the program.
The technology challenges posed by the common core are “front and center, and you can’t get around it,” said John D. Harrington, the chief executive officer of Funds for Learning, an Edmond, Okla., organization that helps schools apply for E-rate funding. School officials are “trying to make sure they have a robust computer network that doesn’t come to a grinding halt when they’re testing all their students,” he said.
But the extent to which the E-rate program can meet districts’ demands is unclear. Requests for funding through the program have far exceeded available aid in recent years, advocates for improving school technology say. Some of the technology upgrades sought by districts may not qualify as top priorities under federal standards, leaving schools and districts to seek help from state, local, or other sources. And other purchases, such as computing devices students will need to take the tests, will not qualify at all.
Congress established the E-rate program in 1996 with the goal of ensuring that all schools and libraries, particularly those in disadvantaged or rural communities, had communications services, including the Internet. The program, which receives funding through fees collected from telecommunications providers, is administered by the Federal Communications Commission and managed by the Universal Service Administrative Co., a nonprofit organization.
Schools and libraries do not obtain funding directly from the program, but instead apply to receive discounts on the costs of service. The amount of the discounts to schools varies, with greater amounts going to poorer applicants.
The FCC places the highest priority on funding projects focused on covering the base costs of telecommunications and Internet-access services, which includes increasing bandwidth. Work on improving schools’ internal networks—upgrades that Mr. Harrington predicts many districts will require to give common-core tests—would most likely be identified as “priority two” projects, depending on the work involved, FCC officials say.
Demand for funding through the program has increased over time. In fiscal 2012, $2.3 billion in funding was available, but schools and libraries had requested more than double that amount, $5.2 billion, according to Funds for Learning, which has asked the FCC to rechannel more telecommunications money into the E-rate.
FCC officials say the agency has taken numerous steps in recent years to make it easier for schools to secure funding for critical upgrades, such as increasing E-rate applicants’ options for broadband providers, streamlining the application process, and indexing E-rate funding to inflation.
Yet rising demands for bandwidth and other overhauls come as school leaders are struggling to cover technology costs through other means. Many states and districts are only beginning to climb out of the depths of the recent recession, noted Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, a nonprofit association representing those officials.
Efforts to implement the common-core standards and tests, meanwhile, are rolling forward. Two consortia of states, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, have both in recent months released their own guidelines for the minimum technology standards that states, and by extension individual districts, will need to meet to give those exams, which will cover English/language arts and math.
PARCC’s bandwidth requirements won’t be made final until later this year, but the group has set recommended bandwidth for external connections to the Internet at 100 kilobits per second, per student, or faster, and a minimum for internal school networks of at least 1000 kilobits per second.
One of the biggest concerns voiced by district officials and technology experts about the common core is that school systems’ current bandwidth won’t allow them to administer online tests to hundreds, or potentially thousands, of students at once without problems.
A related worry is that districts will be forced to restrict the use of other parts of their technology systems that rely on bandwidth—such as computer-based instruction, e-mail communication, websites, and external communication to parents—during testing windows, or that their systems won’t be able to quickly handle shifts in demand.
In the 3,750-student Western Heights Independent School district outside of Oklahoma City, no more than 400 students typically go online at once, said Joe Kitchens, the superintendent. But during common-core testing, district officials think their online burden could double or even triple, he said.
To meet that spike in demand, the district has applied to use E-rate funding to cover the costs of doubling its bandwidth, at a cost of $30,000. While Western Heights already has a “fairly robust” wireless-technology system covering its eight schools, it is seeking about $475,000 through the E-rate to close gaps in its internal networks and make sure all classrooms have connections—most likely a priority-two request, Mr. Kitchens said.
“Once you get into a testing situation, you have to be able to support it without interruption,” said Mr. Kitchens, who added: “I do not think this is going to be a cheap exercise at all.”
Some expected technology costs associated with the common core aren’t eligible for E-rate funding. For instance, PARCC says the Windows XP/Service Pack 3 operating system is a minimum need for giving the consortium’s test, though Windows 7 is recommended for future use.
But because the E-rate does not directly pay the costs of computing devices or Windows operating system software, districts will have to find other funding sources to meet those needs, said Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, a Washington-based organization representing district technology officials. (The E-rate program did, however, recently fund a pilot project supporting mobile technology.)
While the E-rate is “essential for implementing the common-core assessments,” said Mr. Krueger, the reality is that “a huge amount of the installed [computer technology] base in schools is outdated.”
The Western Heights district, for instance, hopes to increase the number of computer devices, mostly wireless tablets, from 2,000 to 4,000, over the next four years, at a cost of about $2.3 million. The district is expected to place a bond item before voters to cover that expense, Mr. Kitchens said.
One district that anticipated the heavy technological lift posed by common-core assessments, and took steps to secure E-rate funding, was the Calcasieu Parish public school system, in southwestern Louisiana.
Over the past few years, the 34,000-student district has used E-rate funding to overhaul its internal connections and Internet access, improving switches and wireless-access points. It also plans to apply to use E-rate money to support a major increase in bandwidth, at twice the current cost, said Sheryl Abshire, the district’s chief technology officer.
Ms. Abshire, who serves on the board of the Universal Service Administrative Co., said she has heard a “cry for help” from district officials who don’t know how they will pay for improved technology necessary to give common-core tests.
“You can’t meet increased demand with static services,” she said. “It’s just impossible.”
District leaders’ anxiety is heightened by the knowledge that their schools will be judged by their students’ performance on tests—and their belief that many students will lack the patience to take a test seriously if their computer screens are continually freezing or having other hang-ups.
“How long are [students] going to sit and wait for a browser to go to the next page?” Ms. Abshire said. If you’ve “got a roomful of kids who are waiting,” she added, the risk is “those kids shut down.”
Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as With Common Core in Mind, Schools Turn to E-Rate