Education Week Issue 25 - Technology Counts 2014 - 26
Moment of Truth
For Common Core
that they face
ith 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."
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
>> MARCH 13, 2014
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.
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
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Education Week Issue 25 - Technology Counts 2014
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week Issue 25 - Technology Counts 2014
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