New technology challenges schools

MARIETTA – Some local school officials are concerned about having the hardware and capacity to administer new computer-based state tests set to debut in 2014-15.

“It’s another unfunded mandate from the state of Ohio,” said Frontier Local Schools Superintendent Bruce Kidder. “I’m barely lucky (enough) to be able to afford computers that meet the minimum.”

But those in other districts say they’ve been able to keep up with advancing technology and feel they will be ready when the time comes.

“We’re pretty blessed with technology to be real honest with you,” said Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn.

Dunn noted the district receives donations of computers and other equipment from organizations like the federal Bureau of Public Debt in Parkersburg and the FBI. While the items are beyond their service lives from those entities’ perspective, they’re still up-to-date and useful for the district.

Replacing the Ohio Achievement and Graduation tests with assessments developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium of 22 states plus the U.S. Virgin Islands, is part of Ohio’s transition to the national Common Core standards and the state’s own updated science and social studies benchmarks. The tests can be administered on desktop or laptop computers or tablet devices like iPads.

John Charlton, associate director of communications for the Ohio Department of Education, said the need for technology to be upgraded isn’t based solely on the new testing.

“Technology is embedded into the curriculum,” he said. “We don’t believe a district has to go out and purchase technology just for these exams a couple times a year.”

Schools are working to incorporate technology into the classroom in a variety of ways. But they may not all be on pace to have enough devices that meet the minimum standards for the testing in a little less than two years.

“It’s definitely a major concern,” said Noble Local Schools Superintendent Dan Doyle, who added that his district is already operating on the “bare minimum” in many ways. “As far as the hardware goes, we’ve definitely got work to do in that area.”

Doyle estimated the district has about 100 iPads, but 1,000 students. Schools pay about what other consumers do for a new iPad, which he estimated to be in the neighborhood of $500 apiece.

While a one-to-one student-device ratio is not required, he said even rotating the devices between classes could be a problem since districts in other states have encountered issues with them not holding a charge long enough for two testing sessions in a day.

Doyle said iPads were not the only devices the district could use. He did not have an estimate on how much it would cost to acquire the necessary equipment, noting that was still being studied.

Kidder said the Frontier district is considering going with the Chromebook, a laptop designed by Google. He estimates they would cost about $250 apiece.

“We’ve ordered one. We are seeing how user-friendly it is,” he said.

Kidder envisions the district having the devices on carts that can be moved among classrooms. It would take about 10 carts to have enough devices to administer the tests to students, at a total cost of approximately $100,000.

The district has some equipment that meets the minimum standards PARCC recommends, Kidder said.

“The trouble is, two years from now, will they even be workable at that point?” he said.

PARCC’s website, www.parcconline.org, lists minimum and recommended requirements. Some of the minimum requirements will only be good for the first year of testing. In some cases, minimum requirements will not be established until October.

An assessment tool provided by PARCC indicates 72 percent of the desktops and laptops in the Wolf Creek Local school district meet the minimum requirements, said Lisa Wagner, district technology coordinator and librarian. But she expects that to change as more standards are released.

“They do change all the time,” she said.

The district is only at 21 percent for the higher, recommended standards, but Wagner said that is largely due to the fact that many of its computers use the Windows XP operating system as opposed to Windows 7 or 8.

“It does require money, but most of our machines have the RAM” for the upgrade, she said. The district also purchased iPads this year and those have not been factored into the estimates because tablet standards are still being worked on, Wagner said. Filling out those assessments helps districts and the state, Charlton said.

“Not only can they make a determination as to what their needs are, we can make a good determination for the state as well,” he said.

If there are areas where many districts are struggling, there could be steps taken to help, Charlton said.

Districts can also apply to offer traditional pen-and-paper tests, which Kidder said Frontier might have to consider.

“A district has to be able to basically prove to the Department of Education … that they cannot meet the requirements, for whatever reason,” Charlton said. “It’s kind of a safety net, but it’s a last resort.”

The questions would be of the same level of rigor, but those tests would not have pictures and video like some the computer questions would. In addition, it would take longer to get scores back, Charlton said.

Marietta City Schools is in the midst of a technology audit, which Superintendent Harry Fleming said will help them determine what needs to be done to prepare for the new testing. He said he believes the district will be able to meet the requirements.

“We’re going to undoubtedly have to put some money into technology, but I don’t know how much yet,” he said.

Although it’s had its share of budget struggles lately, the Switzerland of Ohio Local school district is on pace to be ready for the new testing, Superintendent Larry Elliott said. New buildings in the district provide modern infrastructure, and the district generally does a good job replacing outdated equipment, he said.

“I think we’ll be geared up and be able to meet that challenge,” Elliott said.

Dunn said his concerns are less about having the equipment to execute the testing but how the tests will work.

“They have not been field tested. They haven’t even been written yet,” he said.

The technological hiccups that are commonplace in today’s world could be magnified on tests that are used to reflect a school and district’s performance, Dunn said.

“If that happens with kids during those tests, that could greatly affect how they do on these high-stakes tests,” he said.

Charlton said the assessments will be developed and tested ahead of time so potential bugs will be worked out of the system.