Special Report

Evaluating Schools’ Tech. Readiness for Common-Core Testing

By Sean Cavanagh — March 10, 2014 12 min read
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With about a year to go before new, online assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards are scheduled to be given in schools, districts around the country are still taking stock of whether the technology and connectivity they have on hand will meet their needs—or fail them in the moment of truth.

Schools have turned to a number of resources to help them gauge their readiness for the online testing, from guidelines spelling out the minimum hardware and software they need to give the exams, to systems designed to allow districts to test their available Internet speeds.

Even so, state and district officials acknowledge that they face many unknowns about their ability to manage computer-based assessments. Those questions include whether schools have an adequate supply of bandwidth and devices to deliver the tests, and how they will schedule exams so that they can handle the surge of online demand posed by the testing, without disrupting online instruction occurring elsewhere on school grounds.

In addition, state and district officials, as well as the consortia designing the tests, are trying to plan for the exams while accounting for the rise of new technologies, as others fade from view.

In an effort to anticipate problems, the two main groups of states designing common-core tests, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, have staged pilot tests and tryouts and are planning to run more elaborate field tests of their exams later this year. Four other consortia are focused on delivering assessments for either English-language learners or special education students, though their work in some cases is behind the schedules of Smarter Balanced and PARCC. (See descriptions of the six consortia, Page 28.)

Some school systems have made major improvements in recent years to their Web connectivity, which should help them meet the demands of common-core testing, particularly for Internet bandwidth. One of those districts is the 5,000-student Canby school system in Oregon, which has invested heavily in building fiber-optic connections, buying computing devices, and overhauling internal Web connections.

Even so, the common-core tests pose challenges for the district. Despite ramping up its supply of computers, the projected need for devices during testing times is such that Canby will still have to carefully stagger student schedules to ensure that all students can take the exam within the available assessment window and to avoid disrupting other instruction, said Joe Morelock, the district’s director of technology and innovation.

When test time comes, “you can’t afford a week of hiccups,” Mr. Morelock said. “If districts have not prepared before now, it’s a big uphill climb.”

Technical Guidelines

To help school systems prepare for online testing, Smarter Balanced and PARCC have each published minimum and recommended guidelines for the types of hardware, software, and bandwidth they believe will be needed to deliver the assessments.

In many respects, their recommendations are similar. Both, for instance, recommend that districts using desktops or laptops relying on Microsoft operating systems have versions with Windows 7 or newer models, and districts using Macs have at least version 10.7 in place. The consortia’s recommendations for Linux operating systems, as well as for tablets, including Androids and iPads, are comparable but not identical.

Another similar standard: Both groups, at this point, have required that most computing devices used during testing have external keyboards, rather than ones that eat up space on screen (unless students with special needs have academic calling for something different). The goal is to make sure students’ tasks in answering questions are not made more difficult, or substantially different, based on the type of device they’re using. As a result, some districts are likely to have to add USB cords or wireless keyboards to devices they’re planning to use for testing.

“It’s about making sure that students’ experiences are the same,” said Susan Van Gundy, PARCC’s director of assessment technology. “We want to remove that as a variable, if we can.”

The technology recommendations developed by the alternate testing consortia for ELL and special-needs students are similar in most ways to those developed by Smarter Balanced and PARCC, with some exceptions. For instance, the Dynamic Learning Maps Alternate Assessment Consortium, a group focused on crafting tests for students with significant cognitive disabilities, is requiring that certain devices have faster speeds and larger screen sizes to provide greater clarity and usefulness for test-takers requiring text-to-speech features and video.

Collaborating on Testing

Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers
17 states, plus District of Columbia
Developing optional, diagnostic and mid-year performance assessment for students. Online tests for accountability purposes begin in spring of 2015. Paper and pencil tests will be available, though PARCC is encouraging schools to make the transition to online.

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium 23 states
Offering optional, interim assessments for schools to use over the course of the school year. Summative tests for accountability purposes begin in spring of 2015. Unlike PARCC, Smarter Balanced is using computer-adaptive testing, meaning the questions students receive vary, based on earlier answers. Paper-and-pencil testing will be offered for the first three years of operational testing, though the consortium is encouraging schools to shift online.

Dynamic Learning Maps Alternate Assessment Consortium
18 states
Developing assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The consortium is arranging to give students adaptive, instructionally embedded assessments in English/language arts and math over the course of the school year. States will also have an end-of-year summative assessment in spring of 2015. Starting during the 2015-16 school year, they may have the option of including results from the instructionally embedded component in their overall scores.

National Center and State Collaborative
25 states
Developing assessments for students with severe cognitive disabilities. The comprehensive system includes formative assessment tools for teachers as part of curriculum guides, instructional units, and other resources for educators. The NCSC online summative assessments will include multiple-choice and constructed-response questions, with the first operational administration conducted in spring of 2015. They will be “stage adaptive” tests, with groups of items that will vary, depending on student performance.

English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century (ELPA21)
Membership: 11 states
Focusing on assessments for English-language learners. It is developing two types of assessment, a screener to assess baseline English-language proficiency and summative assessments by grade band to be given near the end of the academic year. The consortium plans to be operational in the 2016-2017 school year.

Assessment Services Supporting ELs Through Technology Membership: 35 states
Developing assessments for English-language learners. The consortium is creating interim assessments to be used throughout the school year. It is also developing annual, online summative assessments, using computers with headsets in order to assess speaking and listening, which will be operational in late 2015.

Many school and technology advocates have raised concerns about the possibility of online tests being interrupted if schools lack robust connectivity. In an attempt to guard against those breakdowns, PARCC is making “caching” available to schools and districts, in which administrators download encrypted tests onto local servers, prior to giving the exams, with the goal of reducing the strain on bandwidth.

Smarter Balanced is not recommending caching; its test instead relies on a process that immediately transmits student responses to a central server bank, and protects those answers, said Brandt Redd, the consortium’s chief technology officer. Smarter Balanced tests are designed to not require high bandwidth, and its exams have computer-adaptive features, in which each student sees a different set of questions. Those features reduce the need for caching, and the benefits from it, Mr. Redd said.

Both consortia, meanwhile, are also coping with large-scale shifts in the technology market.

Microsoft is scheduled this spring to end technical support for XP, which, according to recent estimates, is believed to have been the mostly widely used operating system in K-12 schools. Fearing that districts would be left in the lurch if XP failed during testing periods, both consortia say that even though XP is still acceptable for testing, they recommend that districts move to Windows 7 or a newer version.

Cameron Evans, the chief technology officer for Microsoft’s education division, said that while districts should not “get into a panic that the sky is falling,” sticking with XP increases the chance they will be struck by Malware or other problems, including during testing.

But the Microsoft official also said that over the past year, the nation’s schools have made a major shift away from XP. He now estimates that about 70 percent of the districts using Microsoft operating systems rely on version 7, with just 20 percent remaining on XP and 10 percent using a newer version, Windows 8. While many districts are still using XP in some capacity, Mr. Evans believes most of them are doing so for fairly rudimentary tasks, where there are fewer security risks—not for testing.

With the aim of ensuring that new technologies meet districts’ needs, Smarter Balanced took the controversial step of setting up a process through which manufacturers can have devices certified as complying with the common-core test, in exchange for a fee. Hardware manufacturers and developers of operating systems would pay $35,000 a year for a product to be tested for compatibility, while developers of assistive technologies, designed to give special-needs students access to tests, would pay $5,000.

Certifying Digital Devices

One of Smarter Balanced’s goals is to try to keep up with the steady emergence of new devices, such as Androids, iPads, and Microsoft’s Windows RT tablet, and share the costs with manufacturers of adapting new software and testing its compatibility, said Mr. Redd.

But the certification process is drawing a skeptical response from Mr. Evans. He called the effort a “noble goal,” but one that will heap new demands on manufacturers each time they develop new technologies. And because Smarter Balanced is the only common-core consortium requiring certification, Microsoft could end up making changes to devices that are not relevant to other customers, or even other testing groups.

“It’s not a trivial engineering effort,” Mr. Evans said.

The two major consortia have emphasized that districts should be making technology purchases aimed at improving teaching and learning—not merely to help them with common-core assessments. But Mr. Evans said it’s obvious from the solicitations he sees being put forward by districts that they are making many of their technology purchases with common-core testing in mind.

“A lot of the technology preparation has been driven by the testing consortia,” he said. Districts may test “two days out of the year,” he said, and “a lot of the buying decisions are based on the two days, rather than the other 178.”

Many technology supporters, meanwhile, predict that the level of comfort or pain districts encounter while administering common-core tests will depend not only on the devices and systems they have on hand, but also on how much experience they and their states have with computer-based assessments, and overall technology, to date.

Although online testing has grown increasingly common, the landscape is still varied. At least 33 states were delivering at least one major test via technology as of 2011, and the rest of the states had not yet taken that step, according to the State Educational Technology Directors Association. But the number of states committed to online testing, and the population of students taking those tests, has almost certainly risen since then, according to SETDA, a nonprofit based in Glen Burnie, Md.

It stands to reason that states that haven’t given online assessments, or where existing assessments are much less complex than common-core assessments—which are designed to move beyond simple multiple-choice questions—are more inclined to run into problems, said Geoffrey Fletcher, SETDA’s deputy executive director.

Michigan Moves Forward

One state that has sought to make strides in preparing for online common-core testing is Michigan, where its experience with online testing to date has been limited to social studies and science tests over the past two years, in addition to other, relatively small-scale online exams.

Over the past four years, the state has sought to prepare to implement online assessments on several fronts. Over the past two years the legislature has provided $95 million to support district technology improvements, professional development, and other strategies. In addition, state officials have encouraged districts to take part in pilot tests of the Smarter Balanced online test and to use tech-readiness tools developed by the state, said Vince Dean, the director of the state’s office of standards and assessment.

Gradually, Michigan is making progress, Mr. Dean says: Eighty percent of the state’s districts meet the “minimum” technology-readiness standards put forward by Smarter Balanced, though far fewer school systems meet the consortium’s “recommended” specification. He notes that even the recommended standards represent a lower tech threshold than what state officials believe is necessary for Michigan schools to support good online instruction.

Additionally, there are pockets of districts across the state that don’t have enough connectivity or devices they need to deliver tests reliably. State officials are trying to help them by offering advice on how to stagger the assessments so students aren’t inadvertently logged off during testing windows because of bandwidth problems.

“We need to put a lot of attention on scheduling,” Mr. Dean said. “If they have too few devices, and they’ve got bandwidth limitations, it means they have to weigh when to test.”

Other states, such as Oregon, have a long history with online testing. Yet implementing common-core tests is still likely to pose significant challenges for some districts, said Doug Kosty, the assistant superintendent for the state education department’s office of assessment and accountability.

One hurdle is that Oregon allows districts to schedule state tests over a six-month period, lasting from November through May. The testing window for the Smarter Balanced test, Oregon’s choice of common-core exam, is much shorter—between five and 12 weeks, depending on the grade level tested. Mr. Kosty also estimates that the Smarter Balanced test will take one to two hours longer per student than the current state tests, depending on grade level and subject.

Both of those factors are likely to increase the pressure on districts to ensure that they have adequate bandwidth, functioning internal connections within and among classrooms, and enough devices to deliver the new tests, Mr. Kosty said.

Reliable speed and connectivity should not be problems in the Canby district, though. Over the past decade, the district has invested at least $3 million in improving external and internal technology and computers, upgrades that it hopes will eventually support a 1-to-1 student-to-device program, said Mr. Morelock, Canby’s technology official. If it wanted, the district’s bandwidth strength is strong enough that it could handle each student working on three to five devices at once, he said.

But other concerns, such as the shorter Smarter Balanced testing window, persist. Right now, Canby’s plan is to make the most efficient use of its limited number of test-ready devices—mostly iPads, along with some laptops and desktops—via a combination of rotating students through rooms equipped with computers and taking devices to other students on mobile carts.

“Before, we could space it out over time,” Mr. Morelock said. “Now, the window of time is constricted.”

The district’s technology improvements weren’t made specifically with assessments in mind, he said, but with the broader goal of improving instruction and student learning.

Mr. Fletcher, whose organization has offered written guidance designed to help states and districts make smart investments in technology, said the best approaches are holistic, not just focused on online testing.

“The online assessments have been able to shed a spotlight on the question of, ‘What are the technologies school districts have in place now?’ ” Mr. Fletcher said.

While his organization, SETDA, and others recognize that many school officials are now focusing on “the technology requirements for assessment,” he said, the goal should be to “raise the vision and move it away from ‘assessment only’ to think about ‘instruction first.’ ”

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