SchoolCIO: New Assessments Are Coming: Is Your District Ready?

SchoolCIO: New Assessments Are Coming: Is Your District Ready?

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) School District

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 a measurement.
—Steve Smith

In Rhode Island, everyone uses one of two approved Internet service providers. We worked with OSHEAN (, which provides services for higher ed, hospitals, government agencies, K-12 schools, and libraries. They helped us improve and update our service.
—Paul Barrette

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.
—Matthew Swerdloff

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.
—Steve Smith

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. —Paul Barrette

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.
—Matthew Swerdloff

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?
—Matthew Swerdloff

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 (
• The Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation (
• Computerized Assessments and Learning (
• CTB/McGraw-Hill TerraNova Common Core (
• Measured Progress (
• Pacific Metrics Corporation (
• Pearson Next Generation Assessments (
• Questar Assessments, Inc. (
• Riverside (
• Scantron (