A pilot of math and english/language arts online assessments allowed more than a million students nationwide to switch out their No. 2 pencils and bubble sheets for computing devices to track Common Core State Standards. This pilot was launched by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in an effort to explore the performance of test questions and test-delivery systems in real-world environments. In addition to this pilot, The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) conducted their own Common Core pilot programs to suppot educators as they implement the new common core standards.
While the pilot programs weren’t error-free, educators reported that test-driving the systems made them feel more informed of how best to best prepare their students for the new standards that will be implemented for the 2014-2015 school year.
Don Matthews, the director of educational services for the 1,400 student Larkspur-Corte Madera school district in California, says that involvement in pilot testing has made him and others think hard about what they need to do to improve their technological infrastructure to support online testing. About 300 5th and 6th graders from his district were tested in the Smarter Balanced pilot in April. The students used MacBook laptops to take the tests.
“We want to make sure our technology is compatible and as flawless as possible,” Matthews says. “Obviously, there is concern that if computers are three years old, they won’t be able to do certain things. So we are examining what we have in place and determining what we need to have in place to do what we need to do with online testing.”
The district plans to upgrade its Wi-Fi system and bandwidth this summer, he says. It is also considering buying more devices so that students can take the online assessments in their classrooms and in the library, rather than having them all in computer labs.
“We are looking at [Google] Chromebooks,” says Matthews, referring to the devices, which are similar to netbooks. “They are a very affordable option compared to buying laptops, and they are compatible. They also are good for portability.”
Preparing Test Administrators
One of the most important lessons learned for some Vermont educators was that not only do the students need to be prepared for the assessments, but so do test administrators, says Paul Smith, a curriculum and assessment specialist for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, a school district of 2,600 students in Brattleboro, Vt. While it was a relatively minor bump, there was some confusion about how to log students into the system and other procedures during pilot testing. Sixty students in grades 4, 6, and 7 used mostly Mac laptops to take the Smarter Balanced pilot test in April.
“It was a new set of procedures, and we need a couple of times to go through it to practice it,” Smith says. “If I introduce a new piece of software to staff, there is a learning curve there. This is the exact same thing.”
About 1,300 students in the 90,000-student Albuquerque public schools in New Mexico took part in a PARCC prototype pilot last year. Out of the 20 schools in the pilot, 14 had connectivity problems, says Michael Loughrey, the district’s assessment manager. In a high school class of 34 students taking the test in a computer lab, almost all the participants kept getting bounced off the system one after the other. Students mostly used desktop computers to take the tests.
“We never did figure out why this happened,” Loughrey says.
Rose-Ann McKernan, the executive director of instructional accountability for the Albuquerque schools, says the technology director for the district is worried about server and network capacity at the schools. Making all the necessary upgrades could cost millions of dollars, she says.
The district could use money from the state allocated to schools for technology to buy new computers and to make other technology improvements, McKernan says. The district may also appeal to the state legislature for more funds for technology improvements.
But with all the talk of money and how it should be spent, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind, McKernan points out.
“People are stepping back and saying we are not just talking about network and devices for testing, but about making upgrades in technology for our whole educational system for students as well as for testing,” she says. “So how do we upgrade for that across the board?”