By guest blogger Michele Molnar
Are schools ready for online assessments, given that 2014-2015 will be the first time most states use computers to test a majority of their students?
At a roundtable of education leaders held on Capitol Hill today, the consensus was that the answer is "no," and panelists want federal funding to help.
"We are calling for $250 million. That would be a meaningful investment for the next fiscal year," said Reginal Leichty, a partner with EducationCounsel LLC, a Washington-based consulting firm, after the panel discussion. He is representing the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, an association for school district technology leaders, and the National Association of State Boards of Education, in presenting the funding request to Congress in the coming weeks.
The two organizations co-hosted the roundtable discussion, which was attended by Congressional staffers, with the intention of creating a sense of urgency for legislators to fund the technology schools need for the online tests students will take in spring 2015 to determine their mastery of the Common Core State Standards.
"Given the federal interest in assessment, and in the still existing federal obligation to test all kids 3-8 and once in high school," Leichty said, there should be "some commitment by Congress to help states and districts." He said the $250 million would be "appropriate for the hardware and software needed to deliver the assessments."
Keith Krueger, CoSN CEO, told the audience how important it is to support technology in schools. "We cannot wait any longer to upgrade the digital learning infrastructure needed" to make online testing possible, along with the learning opportunities that the technology provides, he said.
"Online assessments are here to stay," said John Williams, the executive director of technology and information services for the 83,000-student Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, where 46 percent of the families of students in the schools do not have broadband access or a computing device in their homes.
Nashville students have been tested online three times a year even before the state chose the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests. But the students didn't have daily use of the computers they used for testing.
"When I came to Nashville four years ago, they told me it was bad. I found out it was worse than that—60 percent of the devices being used in the district were over six years old," said Williams.
As of January this year, Williams said he had enough devices to be able to declare Nashville "PARCC-ready." He subsequently fell 12,000 short after Microsoft stopped providing technical support for Windows XP in April. PARCC now gives the Windows 7 or later operating system a "recommended" rating.
"I'm not unique in that," Williams said. "Every district in the country had the challenge of retiring Windows XP. For me, the only way I can buy a device is through capital funds allocated each year."
Over four years, Nashville's capital funding for technology has been $10 million, zero, $5 million, and zero. That kind of "wishy washy" funding is a challenge, he said.
Most of the money coming into schools for technology is being spent to build out infrastructure and pay for increased bandwidth, said Tom Ryan, CEO of the eLearn Institute, a Wyomissing, Pa.-based organization dedicated to transforming education through the effective use of digital learning tools.
"Where do we get the money [to purchase] and support the devices?" asked Ryan, whose organization joined with CoSN and Education Networks of America in producing a suite of reources to prepare districts for online assessments.