TPS battles obstacles to meet computer testing mandateWritten by John P. McCartney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When Bob Vasquez told Toledo Public Schools (TPS) Business Manager James Gant at the February Finance Committee meeting that “if this doesn’t happen, the board will be looking to hold someone responsible,” Gant said he fully understood the enormity of the situation.
Vasquez, TPS Board of Education (BOE) member, was referring to the Ohio Department of Education’s (ODE) unfunded mandate that all state-required tests must be administered electronically in the 2014-15 academic year. Students from kindergarten through 12th grade will be required to take state-mandated tests using computers.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure the board is aware that if we need additional technology or additional funding — and I think this was Mr. Vasquez’s point — that it’s my responsibility to make sure they’re aware of that so that we can get what we need in order to run a successful testing period,” Gant said. “My biggest concern is to make sure that we are capable of being able to meet the needs of the district and test well when this thing is rolled out.”
Gant said that as of March 13, TPS has 8,000 computers for student use.
Based on Jim Gault’s explanation of the ODE’s most current recommendations, TPS will either have to purchase at least another 4,000 student computers within the next year or, as Vasquez suggested in February, “look to hire an outside service” to ensure the district has the necessary hardware to give its students the opportunity to pass the tests.
Gault, TPS’s chief academic officer, said ODE is telling districts that it recommends that school buildings with more than six grade levels, which includes all of TPS’s elementary schools, have one computer for every two students in six of the eight grade levels within each building and a 1-to-1 ratio of computers to students in the two grade levels with the highest enrollment in that same building.
‘Quite a bit away’
Gant said an analysis the district recently completed in some of its buildings indicates TPS is “quite a bit away” from establishing a 1-to-1 student-to-computer ratio.
“It’s difficult to quantify ‘quite a bit,’” Gant said, “but we did assess [the cost of providing] Arlington Elementary with a 11-to-1 ratio. That cost is approximately $60,000.”
Gault said ODE also recommends that schools with fewer than six grade levels, which includes TPS’s high schools, have a 2-to-1 students-to-computer ratio.
“We have also been working with ODE in providing an assessment of our technology to ensure … our computers have the necessary RAM (random-access memory) to perform the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) Assessments,” Gault said.
One frustration districts across the state face is ODE’s decision to release the plan piecemeal, Gault said.
“This is not all developed as of yet,” Gault said. “They are releasing more information as we go forward. In fact, they just released some additional information last week on PARCC Assessments.”
A proactive approach
Despite the uncertainty, Gault said TPS is taking a proactive approach to preparing its students for PARCC.
“The district is working diligently to be involved in any state-level pilots we can to not only test our equipment but also to allow our students the opportunity of taking an online assessment,” Gault said.
“There is a fourth-grade social studies pilot that is going to be offered this year that is online. The district is applying to pilot that. Last year, we had the opportunity to pilot the online social studies test as well. We are actively volunteering to engage in any opportunities to test our hardware with the online assessments that are coming.
Gault points to the district’s use of the STAR (Standardized Test for Assessment of Reading) test and SuccessMaker as two examples of TPS’s hands-on methodology.
“We’ve already started by getting online summative assessments like STAR that our students are utilizing in grades K through 8 as we try to get them used to that format of sitting at a computer and taking an assessment,” Gault said. “That’s a new addition of a norm-referenced test we started this year that is showing positive results academically.”
The TPS website describes SuccessMaker as instructional software that provides kindergarten through eighth-grade students with “adaptive, personalized paths for mastery of essential reading and math concepts.
“The program is highly interactive, addressing multiple learning styles and making students active participants in their learning. Many skills are presented in a game-like format, which is challenging and motivating, making students excited to use the program.”
The website has a link to the program that gives students with Internet access in their homes the ability to hone their reading and math skills.
Optimal testing conditions
Capacity is another issue TPS faces, Gault said.
“The minimum requirement is one computer for every two students,” Gault said. “That’s not optimal testing in the way this should be rolled out.
“The other thing we need to talk about is providing instruction for students to have basic keyboarding skills,” Gault said. “When you talk about second, third, fourth and fifth graders, you have to realize they’re not going to be just pointing and clicking. They’re going to have to compose at the computer screen. They’re going to have to word process. They’re going to have to be able to do some copying and editing. So those are things that are going to have to become part of our curriculum that there is not currently funding for.”
Gault said the district is studying where it may be able to include that computer instruction.
“However, one thing we have going for us is that every student at every school can use that school’s computer lab, so there are opportunities for students to learn the word processing skills they will need so that how they take the test does not interfere with their ability to demonstrate their knowledge of the material and their ability to succeed.”
Gault said he is aware that some districts have purchased “little microprocessors” for students in the lower grades to start getting used to the keys and to practice their keystrokes at home.
“We will have to discuss ways we can find opportunities for the youngest students to learn the necessary computer skills to ensure they can succeed. Those are some things that we’ll have to look at to ensure that not only do our students have the content to master these tests, but also have the technology skills [so that] that their skill levels don’t interfere with their ability to demonstrate their knowledge of the content.”
Gault also said he doesn’t believe the infrastructure exists within TPS to provide a one-to-one match. At issue is whether:
- Computers will be wired or wireless.
- The computers the district already owns have sufficient RAM.
- School buildings have the capacity to be wired for today’s technology, which Gault said is much different than the technology standards in place when the buildings were assessed in 2000.
- The district owns the required software.
New material, lengthy tests
Equal consideration must also be given to the curriculum covered in PARCC tests as well as the length of tests, Gault said.
“It’s a twofold issue school districts face,” Gault said. “Not only are we going to be doing new online assessments, but also we’re going to be testing over new material.”
That new material is the Common Core curriculum, and Gault said textbooks will be another significant issue.
“Remember, textbooks were not written for the Common Core — that’s coming,” Gault said. “That’s another issue with some of these unfunded mandates. Districts across the country are going to have to look at their textbook inventories and see if they’re aligned with the Common Core.”
Gault said ODE reports that PARCC Assessments in English language arts and math are expected to take students in grade 3 eight hours to complete, grades 4 and 5 students nine hours to complete, and those in grades 6-12 nine and one-half hours to complete.
Schools will be given a maximum of four weeks to complete the PARCC Assessments. Tests will be scheduled after students complete approximately three-fourths of the school year.
“We can only speculate at this time, because the details and requirements of the 2014-15 tests are being released incrementally, but if I use English as an example, I would speculate that we might administer one test a day for three days,” Gault said. “There is no way children could take a 9.5 hour test in one day. Kids don’t have that kind of attention span.”