Shortly after announcing their state would reverse course and scrap its plan to use new online common-core assessments being developed by the PARCC testing consortium, Oklahoma education officials described the daunting technological hurdles that helped drive their decision.
A survey of the state's 1,773 schools found that just one in five had enough bandwidth and a sufficient number of digital devices to successfully administer the exams, said Sherry Fair, executive director of communications for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
Getting well over 1,000 schools—many rural, poor, and disconnected from the fiber-optic cables that allow for high-speed Internet connections—up to speed by 2015-16, when the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers will no longer make paper-and-pencil exams available to its member states, "is a very big leap," she said.
"It's sad, but we didn't think our school districts could handle [the PARCC exams] without a lot of stress on our students, teachers, and counselors," Fair said.
Oklahoma's decision was also influenced by the cost of the new exams and concerns that students would go from spending between two and three hours taking the current state tests to nine hours on the PARCC tests. The decision was not driven by significant anti-common-core sentiment in the Oklahoma legislature, she said, pointing out that the state is still adopting the new standards.
Officials said Oklahoma is not formally withdrawing from PARCC, but the details of how the state will remain involved now that it is not planning to use the consortium's tests remain unclear.
PARCC, one of two collections of states that have received hundreds of millions of federal dollars to develop new computer-based exams aligned with the common core, currently counts 20 states plus the District of Columbia as members in some capacity.
"We understand that there will be a transition from paper-and-pencil to computer-based assessments," said Chad Colby, a spokesman for PARCC. Colby pointed out that the states in the consortium, including Oklahoma, previously voted to approve the one-year transitional window in which paper-and-pencil exams will still be made available.
But Fair said state officials have since determined that window won't be enough.
Earlier this spring, many Oklahoma schools experienced significant problems administering the state's current online exams. Adopting the PARCC tests would represent an even greater technology challenge.
As a result, Oklahoma will now seek a new provider of tests aligned to the common core, other than PARCC, that can offer more flexibility in how the exams are delivered.
"We have to do what's best for our children, and [PARCC] understands that," Fair said.
Not Enough Bandwidth or Devices
In April, Oklahoma state education officials received the results from a survey of schools' tech readiness. Ninety-three percent of Oklahoma schools responded, said Derrel Fincher, director of learning technologies in the state department of education.
Two-thirds of Oklahoma schools did not have an external connection to the internet at least as fast as 50 kilobits per second, per student—a bare-bones threshold just half as fast as the minimum specifications recommended by PARCC.
Half of the state's schools reported that they did not have the minimum recommended number of computers or other devices need to administer the exams, a figure that worked out to an average student-to-device ratio of roughly 5:1.
Eighty percent of Oklahoma schools did not meet both thresholds.
And the survey didn't even account for the speed of schools' internal networks, another factor that would likely inhibit schools' readiness to deliver all-online assessments in every tested grade.
Poor and rural schools face the most daunting tech hurdles, said Fincher, of the department of education.
"Some of the schools, you would have to drop several miles of high-speed fiber-optic cable" just to get to the school, he said.
"That's an expensive proposition. These small towns, the reason they don't have it now is that recovering the cost [of installation] from the limited number of subscribers in town is prohibitive," even for cable companies, Fincher said.
A Prime Example
Haworth Public Schools, a tiny 561-student district nestled against the Texas border in Oklahoma's far southeastern corner, is a prime example of the challenges Fincher described.
"We have a post office and two stores, and that's about the sum of our community," said Haworth Superintendent Ted Brewer. "Most of our folks down here do not have Internet service at home. It's just not available, and most folks couldn't afford it even it were."
Haworth has two school buildings: an elementary school, and a facility that houses both the high school and the junior high. After a recent upgrade, the schools are served by a total of four, instead of two, old-school T1 lines. Combined, all four lines provide a six megabit connection, allowing for a maximum of about 10 kilobits per second, per student of bandwidth—far below what a modern school needs.
"Our bandwidth stays pretty full all the time just because of the instructional, administrative, and financial software we run," Brewer said.
For the past couple of years, when Haworth has administered the online versions of Oklahoma's current state tests, other online activity in the district had to shut down almost entirely.
During testing time, Superintendent Brewer couldn't even check his email.
"It's inconvenient, but it beats the pain of students getting kicked off" the online exams, he said.
Haworth just barely meets PARCC's device recommendations, said both Brewer and Fincher.
But substantially improving the schools' bandwidth, which would require more than 10 miles of new fiber-optic cable, would be a huge expense.
Despite the past problems—Haworth escaped relatively unscathed when Oklahoma had to cancel the online administration of exams in April after the state's current vendor, CTB/McGraw-Hill, experienced a server crash—and continuing hurdles, Brewer said he was "a bit disappointed" to learn that Oklahoma was opting out of the PARCC assessments.
"I'd rather face the issues at hand and work through them rather than just give up," he said.
Keeping the Paper-and-Pencil Option
Money, though, is always a factor.
Fair, the director of communications for Oklahoma's education department, said the state expects to save about $2 million by switch from PARCC to a new vendor to provide the state's common-core assessments.
Schools will also get access to optional formative assessments and exams for retakes, she said.
A request for proposals from new vendors will go out this summer. Oklahoma will require that any vendor provide schools with greater flexibility to offer paper-and-pencil tests than they would receive from PARCC, Fair said.
The state wants to maintain its current arrangement: Grades 3-5 will take strictly pencil-and-paper exams. Grades 6-12 will take computerized exams, but schools will have the option to use a paper-and-pencil version for the foreseeable future.
Fair said the state education department "hasn't gotten to the point where we have put a dollar figure" on how much it would have cost to get all of Oklahoma's schools technologically ready to deliver the PARCC assessments.
"We just did not think we could handle it," she said.