SchoolCIO: New Assessments Are Coming: Is Your District Ready?
5/30/2013 By: Ellen Ullman
Whether you live in a state that supports PARCC or SBAC, you’re undoubtedly facing
the challenges of moving to online assessments. From the infrastructure to the
devices to the children taking the tests, there are loads of decisions to make. We’ve
asked a few CIOs who are already working on these issues to share what they’ve put
in place. Perhaps their decisions will help inform yours.
Obstacle 1: Is your school network able
to handle the number of devices needed
to support online testing in 2014-15?
Even before Common Core standards, we were pushing
to standardize devices. We had Macs and PCs and were
supporting various operating systems. Then, about four
years ago, we decided to focus on the backend. We built
up our infrastructure, so there’s adequate bandwidth
and wireless everywhere, as well as the necessary
management tools. Now we can support Chromebooks,
Androids, and iOS devices. We don’t care what the device
is. When PARCC came around, I wasn’t as concerned.
—Steve Smith, CIO, Cambridge (MA) Public Schools
When the PARCC recommendations and toolkits came out in March, I
realized we don’t have enough internal bandwidth on our school networks to
adequately support the tests. It’s a concern we’re addressing. Our state has
gone out for a bond to improve the internal infrastructures in all districts.
We are just getting started on the Wireless Classroom Initiative by collecting
information on where all districts are, currently [in terms of infrastructure
and technology]. The plan is to ensure that all classes in
schools this bond can cover will have adequate wireless
connectivity for PARCC and 1:1 programs, but the
bond won’t cover all schools. We’re waiting to see how
this plays out as we continue to work with local capital
improvement funds to improve our infrastructure. At the
same time, we’ve asked our principals to determine what
they would do if no money comes through and we can’t
do any more improvements.
We’ve looked at our current wireless infrastructure and identified where we
wouldn’t be overwhelmed if we had 30 kids testing in one place. We’d have to
curtail other tech activities while testing is going on, but we could pull it off.
—Paul Barrette, director of technology, Burrillville (RI) School Department
Absolutely not! It’s very problematic. New York, like many other states, is in
terrible financial shape. We’ve managed the growth pretty well and have not
added too many computers without having adequate support. The thought
of adding another 200 to 400 laptops is daunting. We don’t have the network
capacity within or between our buildings or to the Internet. I’ve been meeting
with our board and tech leadership team and figuring out what to do. New York
has not officially approved online testing yet, although they are saying there will
be testing online in ELA and math by the spring of 2014.
We have a tax cap and boards are unwilling to start funding this new
infrastructure on an unwritten promise. The state said we had two funding years
to build up infrastructure. We lost in 2013 because our board, rightly so, said we
couldn’t spend the funds in case the state changes its mind. We are talking about
a bond for $1.7 million to upgrade our internal networks, replace switches, buy
laptops, and install WiFi throughout our schools. If the budget passes, we’ll have
some public conversations about this need and vote on it in the fall. If it passes,
the work will have to happen on breaks and over the summer to be ready by fall
2014. I’ve talked with other tech directors, and the majority of them are in the
same shape as we are, or even worse.
—Matthew Swerdloff, director of instructional technology, Hendrick Hudson (NY)
Obstacle 2: Do your schools have enough
Internet bandwidth for online testing to
even be feasible?
I know a lot of districts are struggling with Internet bandwidth, but I think
there are ways to do it. You may need to think outside the box and look at the
municipal pole rights on your town’s telephone poles. Although they are owned
by utility companies, the city usually has the rights to run something on those
poles. In some cases schools can run their own fiber and increase bandwidth.
To see if this is possible, contact the municipality about utility pole rights
and permits. When I worked at a district in Maine, I started running fiber on
the poles, and we had a fiber network to all schools. Then we just had to get
adequate bandwidth to one location on that fiber network. Ask your local
university about Internet 2, which offers high-speed connectivity. Here in
Cambridge, we partnered with Harvard and have a full gig for the district.
Make sure you don’t shortcut when installing wireless within your
schools. Have a good managed system that’s going to control the bandwidth
and shift between access points as needed. When we did our state tech plan,
we included the new PARCC guidelines regarding bandwidth and devices as
In Rhode Island, everyone uses one of two approved Internet service providers.
We worked with OSHEAN (www.oshean.org), which provides services for
higher ed, hospitals, government agencies, K-12 schools, and libraries. They
helped us improve and update our service.
No, we don’t right now. It’s relatively easy to upgrade. We use Cablevision
Lightpass, and they just need to flip a switch. It won’t require more cabling, just
more money. So it’s a budgetary and financial hurdle that we need to overcome.
Obstacle 3: What devices should schools
consider purchasing to conform
with PARCC and SBAC recommended
specifications and—more importantly—also
support teaching and learning initiatives?
Once we stopped caring about the device, we helped teachers figure out the
best tools based on the needs of that class. We made sure all devices were
PARCC compatible, which eliminated smaller tablets.
As the recommendations have changed, this has become really hard. Devices
have to have keyboards and smaller screen sizes are out. Last year (before the
PARCC’s firm guidelines came out), we put a three-year device plan in place.
We planned to go with thin clients in our elementary schools and installed
210 in our elementary schools. Now we have to pivot. We don’t have enough
physical space to add labs, and a traditional laptop battery won’t last through
a whole day. Androids and iPads are not a good solution for us. We have to add
keyboards and mice.
PARCC recommends buying something with a five-year life span, which
essentially eliminates tablets. We have been piloting Chromebooks, and
we are planning to buy 300 more over the next two years that we’ll use as
classroom sets during PARCC. We’re going to get another cart of the new
Lenovo models and will try them out with the test items. For us, that looks like
the right solution. When we’re not using them for testing, we’ll break them up
and use them in classrooms. We just need to come up with a plan to keep the
Chromebooks charged for test days.
We’re thinking about laptops since we don’t have room for more labs. We’re
thinking about carts we could use during the year and for testing. If we get
this equipment, it could change the way teachers teach and
students learn. That’s a big plus. We’ve ruled out tablets.
We feel students need a keyboard and mouse. We have
piloted Chromebooks this year. Although they are limited
for some things, they are great for using Google Docs,
surfing the Web, and emailing. We’re not yet sure if they’ll
work for online testing. If there’s a version of the tests that
will work on Chromebooks, that’s probably what we will go
with. We’ll need 500 devices.
Obstacle 4: How can you
prepare your teachers and
students for Common Core
standards and assessments?
We haven’t taken steps toward professional development
(PD) that’s targeted at the assessments, but we are making
an effort across the board to provide more PD for our
teachers around the technology they’re using. If you’re
teaching to the Common Core standards, you are teaching
in an appropriate manner so that students are ready to
take these assessments. This year, we implemented a new
staffing model for our edtech department and put an instructional tech
specialist (ITS) at every school. That person provides PD as needed and can
co-teach so that curriculum gets integrated whenever possible. We still do
after-school workshops, but they are just quick ‘here’s a tool and how to use
it’ classes to introduce something and then the real work happens with the
ITS and the teacher.
Because the assessments will be administered online, there’s a need for
teachers and students to be comfortable engaging with online assessments
and activities. I’m making sure we have an appropriate number of student
devices in schools this September and that the curriculum integrates
technology on a regular basis so students use these devices and online
activities years in advance of taking an assessment in that manner.
One potential sticking point is keyboarding skills. As I understand it,
the assessment will demand that of our students. They won’t be able to draw or
record answers. Because of the limited time in the school day, keyboarding hasn’t
been a consistent piece of a student’s daily schedule. How do we get that back in?
—Gina Roughton, assistant director of educational technology, Cambridge
(MA) Public Schools
I did a ‘road show’ this fall and met with the faculty at each school and told them
what’s coming. They knew about Common Core standards, but had not heard
about the online assessments, and it wasn’t received warmly. They had a lot of
concerns. Now we’re educating our parents.
I’m not so concerned with having teachers change their instructional delivery
method. We’ve been working on that for a number of years and do a lot of PD. In
fact, people ask for more than I can give them in terms of training, software, and
hardware. I think people are ready and excited.
The big challenge for teachers is time. Instead of using textbooks, we use
online presentation tools. Instead of making a poster, we use PowerPoint. As
much as I say it’s a different tool, they see it as a new responsibility and there’s not
enough time. The state keeps adding curriculum, mandates, and trainings, but the
school day doesn’t get longer. Frankly, I’m concerned with the logistics around
the technical staffing on testing days. We’ll have tests in four buildings on one day.
I have two technicians. What do we do if something happens?
Our district has lived as a professional learning community (PLC) since 2003. It
started at one elementary school and moved throughout the district. Through our
collaborative time, which has become our culture, our teachers can look at student
data, see if and where interventions are needed, and prepare children—not for the
test, but to master the standards we want them to learn. Because learning is the
focus, technology is in support of that. We are teaching the Common Core standards
and taking the Kansas state assessment based on the 2003 standards, but we know
there will be a difference. It’s been a wonderful year to dig into the Common Core
standards and find out what we need to have. Collaboration and PLCs are key.
—Geri L. Parscale, deputy superintendent, Fort Leavenworth (KS) School
District USD 207
Looking for More Resources?
• ETS (www.ets.org)
• The Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation
• Computerized Assessments and Learning
• CTB/McGraw-Hill TerraNova Common Core
• Measured Progress (www.measuredprogress.org)
• Pacific Metrics Corporation (www.pacificmetrics.com)
• Pearson Next Generation Assessments
• Questar Assessments, Inc. (www.questarai.com)
• Riverside (www.riversidepublishing.com)
• Scantron (www.scantron.com)