Special Education

Tech. Compatibility Certification Set Up for Common-Core Testing

By Christina A. Samuels — December 10, 2013 5 min read
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Faced with having to support a wide and growing array of educational software and hardware tools, one of the groups charged with building common-core assessments is shifting part of the cost of maintaining compatibility to technology companies through a process that will allow those companies to receive a guarantee of compatibility in return for an annual fee.

The American Institutes for Research, in Washington, is developing an online testing system for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, made up of 25 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The certification process would require hardware manufacturers and operating-system developers—companies such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft—to pay $35,000 annually for a product to be tested for compatibility with the common-core online tests and, if approved, be included on an AIR list of supported products.

A separate certification process is geared toward assistive-technology companies, which make products that link to a computer and enable students who have disabilities to access tests. Examples include specialized text-to-speech readers and devices that allow students with mobility impairments to move a cursor around a computer screen without the use of hands.

Assistive-technology companies would pay $5,000 a year for certification, or they could go through a self-certification process that involves testing their devices against an online-demonstration assessment. The online-demo process would not require companies to pay, but it also means those devices would not be guaranteed to work in all situations the way a certified device would be.

Assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards are slated to be in place by the 2014-15 school year, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium plans a field test involving millions of students this spring.

Certifying the Technology

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium has developed a certification system for hardware, software, and peripheral manufacturers in order for those companies to get on a list of devices that support the common-core assessments it is developing for 25 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Device-Certification Program
• Designed for hardware and operating-system providers
• $35,000 annual fee per type of device (for example, the iPad 2 and the iPad 3 are two devices)
• Must be able to provide a secure testing environment
• Should maximize screen real estate
• Changes in devices require new certification

Assistive-Technology-Certification Program
• Intended for hardware, software, and peripheral providers that provide technologies for students with disabilities
• $5,000 annual fee per type of device
• Fee can be refunded if device does not work with test “after considerable collaborative efforts”
• Most digital devices already compatible with websites are likely to be compatible with Web-based assessment

Source: American Institutes for Research

Security Priorities

Smarter Balanced has already said that its tests are designed to work on the most commonly used computer operating systems, including recent versions of the Windows and Mac systems, Google Chromebooks and some tablets.

But those operating systems and the computers that run them represent only some of the new hardware and software devices that are now being marketed to schools, said Jon Cohen, an executive vice president of AIR, and the director of its assessment program, which is creating the Smarter Balanced tests.

Tablet devices, computers that run operating systems other than Windows and Mac, and computers that run “virtual” operating systems from a server are all making inroads in the education market.

The Smarter Balanced certification process is set up to ensure that the devices and software accurately display all the elements of the tests, and also make sure that using those products will not open up security holes, Mr. Cohen said.

To pass muster, devices have to be able to handle test questions that involve animation, video, or drag-and-drop features, for example. They also have to be able to block access to search engines, prevent students from sharing information, and cut off any ability to capture what is being shown on the computer screen and then send it to someone else.

Though most current operating systems are compatible with the upcoming common-core tests, Smarter Balanced wants large technology companies such as Microsoft and Google to get certified. “We’re encouraging them to join so we’ll be sure we can support them in the future,” Mr. Cohen said.

For assistive-technology manufacturers, the benefit of the certification process is that companies will be able to assure districts that the devices will meet the tests’ requirements, Mr. Cohen said, and that AIR staff are trained to support them.

Assistive-technology makers also have to communicate with Smarter Balanced to make sure that their devices’ functionality doesn’t change the construct of what the tests are measuring.

For example, Smarter Balanced will not allow the use of text-to-speech on reading passages of the English/language arts tests that it is developing for students in elementary school, though middle and high school students can use such an accommodation because the tests are measuring reading comprehension, not reading fluency. For earlier grades, the consortium has said that text-to-speech alters the construct that is being measured.

Civil Rights Issue?

The other consortium creating general common-core tests, the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is not using a certification process for its tests, said Tamara Reavis, PARCC’s senior adviser for assessment, accessibility, and equity. Instead, the organization plans to establish a list of requirements that devices must meet to be used.

If an assistive-technology device cannot be used on the PARCC-developed tests, a student will have the option of taking paper-and-pencil versions, according to a recently updated manual on accommodations and accessibility from PARCC, which includes 18 states and the District of Columbia.

The tests being developed by both consortia have a variety of built-in technologies intended to assist students with special needs, such as text-to-speech readers, magnifiers, glossaries, and calculators. But disability-rights advocates have argued that built-in accommodations may not meet the needs of students who are accustomed to using different assistive techologies on a daily basis as part of regular instruction. Some organizations are warning that certification could interfere with the opportunity of students with disabilities to access the tests using the technologies that are most familiar to them, because it will likely be harder for companies to guarantee that their devices will be compatible with the online tests unless they pay.

Instead of Smarter Balanced requiring manufacturers to meet its needs, the consortium should be reaching out to hardware and software companies to make sure its tests work with what’s already on the market, said David Dikter, the chief executive officer of the Assistive Technology Industry Association, a Chicago-based group that represents companies building products and services for students with disabilities. Moreover, Mr. Dikter said, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should take precedence over concerns about the digital security of the common-core tests.

“I question whether security can actually trump a civil right,” Mr. Dikter said. “I’m a believer in the security. If [tests] leak out to the whole world, that’s a big problem. But when it comes to the assistive technology, if the nature of the security blocks students out because of that, that becomes a separate issue.”

Cameron Evans, the national and chief technology officer for Microsoft Education, said that the Redmond, Wash.-based company is evaluating the certification process. One issue is that some of the standards that AIR would like companies to support are not commonly used, Mr. Evans said.

Plus, there is work required to make those standards compatible on all types of devices. “When you’re asking a global company to make a technical change, it is not trivial,” he said.

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Tech. Compatibility Certification Set Up for Common-Core Testing


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