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Computer-based assessments testing the wherewithal of Colorado schools

For Hanover Superintendent Paul McCarty, the coming move to online exams is playing out as a series of puzzles he needs to solve.

Last week, the question at hand was how the district would  provide the necessary accommodations for the school’s students living with disabilities who will begin taking new computer-based standardized assessments later this month.

Earlier this year, when students in the small rural district in southeast El Paso County took the first round of standardized assessments, the pencil- and paper-based TCAPs, serving students with special needs was simple enough, McCarty said — the school was able to use unoccupied conference rooms or the school’s library for students who needed more time or fewer distractions.

But when the school begins to administer online exams later next week, McCarty and his counselor, who pulls double duty as the school’s assessment coordinator, will need to find a way to move enough of the school’s 75 desktop computers out of computer labs and classrooms to separate testing locations for those students.

“There’s today’s problem,” McCarty said.

Colorado school officials are trying to anticipate as many problems as they can as they prepare their campuses for the new tests, which begin Monday. Top concerns include making sure buildings have enough computers, aligning schedules to accommodate for a longer test, and elbow room to ensure students are comfortable — and can’t cheat.

And while the level of anxiety is certainly high, assessment and information technology administrators know this spring’s round of computer-based testing — which most described as limited — is just a warm-up for much larger changes that will be necessary when the state rolls out online standardized assessments in language arts and math for grades three through 11 next year.

For now, schools only have to worry about administering the state’s social studies test to fourth and seventh grade students and the state’s science test fifth and eighth grade students will take the science tests. Next fall seniors will be given variations of both tests, as well.

Still, despite the smaller scope of this round of standardized exams, the shift is testing Colorado school officials at every level.


Colorado schools have administered standardized tests for almost two decades. For years, test prep included making sure there are plenty of No. 2 pencils sharpened and urging students to get a good night’s rest.

But this year, schools are trading in their pencil sharpeners and scratch paper for tablets and wireless Internet access.

While many schools across Colorado have given their own interim assessments online, the results aren’t attached to any accountability like the results provided by the state’s assessments.

The challenge for schools comes on many fronts. They must ensure they have enough technology to proctor the exams, make certain their Internet access is reliable to send testing data back and forth, shuffle their schedules to safeguard instructional time and protect the fidelity of the tests by providing students enough room to be comfortable, limit distractions, and deter cheating.

These new proctoring factors, coupled with the high stakes attached to the results, have manifested angst in many schools and districts.

“We’ve never had state assessments given in an online format before,” said David Bahna, director of assessment and accountability for that Adams 12 Five Star district, northeast of Denver. “There is a level of anxiety for everyone. Will the technology work? Will it hold up? Schools are held accountable, and we want the results to be as accurate as possible.”

For the Adams 12 district, preparations for the new tests have included purchasing more computers — with more to come — and beefing up school networks. But for the most part, Bahna said, “we’re kind of going with what we have right now.”

While the investments for school districts, including even the largest bureaucracies with multi-million dollar budgets, have been painful during difficult economic times, the state’s charter schools that generally act independently of large networks have had to shoulder both the financial and human costs of preparing for new tests by themselves, said Terry Croy Lewis, vice president of school quality and support for the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

“We’re stand alone schools in most cases,” she said describing her member schools. “Since you’re doing everything in-house, you don’t normally have an entire assessment or IT department to help. Your own personnel is going to have to figure that out.”

The League, Lewis said, does provide some assistance in identifying technology needs, but that’s mostly for startup schools.

“When charters are working on startup grants, they’re going to want to be cognizant of their technology needs,” she said. “Now it’s critical. You’re going to have to have technology. This is something [new schools] can’t overlook. Tech adverse schools [such as Waldorf inspired schools] are going to have to wrestle with this.”


Even for districts and schools with adequate technology on hand, figuring out the scheduling is proving to be a pain.

While Colorado parents, activist and lawmakers are engrossed in a debate over how much time students spend taking standardized tests, school administrators are grappling with a less theoretical quagmire: how to schedule a 90-minute test in an hour long class period.

Testing for fourth and fifth grades will be easier, administrators said. Their school day is more moldable. But for McCarty, Hanover’s superintendent who also serves as the principal for the district’s middle and high school, scheduling blocks of time for the new tests is proving irksome on multiple fonts.

First, his school has two computer labs that are used throughout the day for technology classes. Passing a computer class is a graduation requirement in Hanover. Teachers who instruct students on how to type and use computer software will likely need to do so — without computers, he said, during testing time. Second, a large portion of his students participate in track and field events in April. They have to leave their rural campus by 11:30 a.m. to make almost any out of town meet. There’s a strong likelihood, McCarty said, they’ll need to reschedule meets, if not postpone contests outright. And third, the campus will likely have to create a modified block schedule to accommodate the longer tests, he said.

And that’s only if everything goes according to plan and no students miss testing segments. If they do, he said, the school will need to make special accommodations for them because testing sections can not be taken out of order, as they previously could with the paper and pencil test, McCarty said.

“I don’t know how logistically this is possible,” he said. “We’re going to have to make lemonade out of lemons, I guess.”

At least all of McCarty’s students are in one place. Online schools face an entirely different set of scheduling challenges, said Amy Valentine, executive director of both the Insight School of Colorado and Colorado Preparatory Academy.

“Online schools come in different shapes and sizes, which can affect the testing environment,” she said. “Due to the fact that we are a program that enrolls students throughout the state, our biggest challenge is the broad geographic landscape in which our families reside.”

The schools have to manage multiple testing locations, coordinate with teachers and students across the state, increase and update the amount of technology for their families and manage the instructional impact of teachers being away from their home office for hours a time, she said.

But it’s all coming together, at least in theory, she said.

“Insight School of Colorado and Colorado Preparatory Academy are meeting, and exceeding, the challenges of the virtual environment,” she said. “Increased collaboration with a strong leadership team, supporting teachers with more clarity, and working with CDE as closely as possible allows us the opportunity to better support our testing environment and varied needs of learners that we have based on our statewide student population.”

Elbow room

They say the devil is in the details. But for school officials proctoring the CMAS, the devil may be in a computer’s virus scanner.

That’s because the testing software must be sensitive enough to detect when a student may be cheating by launching an alternative web browser. So, according to information technology directors, the software picks up when any other programs  are running in the background.

Making sure those modern marvels of technology — like cloud syncing and virus scanning — are just some of the minute (and last-minute) details IT officers and assessment directors are attending to as schools ready for the new tests.

“These computers are [primarily] used for instructional purposes,” said Steve Clagg, chief information officer for Aurora Public Schools. “But the computers need to be locked down, if a virus scan kicks off during the test, the testing software can boot a student out. For fidelity, it’s a good thing [the software] is doing it. But [Microsoft] Windows isn’t something you can just shut down.”

His team, which has been preparing for 18 months, is finalizing a checklist for all of Aurora’s schools to run through prior to testing kicking off, he said.

“What’s on that checklist — that’s the question,” he said.

To-dos for the Adams 14 school district have included: preparing workstation space for elbow room, creating unique logins for security purposes, standardizing school web browsers, and software changes including writing in-house code, said Teresa Hernandez, Director of Assessment and Technology for the Adams 14 school district.

Dress rehearsal

When it’s all said and done, the months and months of preparation school districts have under their belt for the state’s historic foray into computer-based testing really will come down to just a few hours of actual testing. But that’s OK by them. Because they know the true Herculean task awaits them next year.

That’s when students in third through 11th grade will be required to take not only the CMAS tests, but also exams in language arts and math.

“We’re gonna get a lot of feedback,” Aurora’s Clagg said. “We’ll learn a lot.”

He said Aurora plans to have two computers for every high school student, three computers for every middle school student and four computers for every elementary school student by the next wave of assessments.

Other administrators, like McCarty, aren’t so optimistic.

“I’m not sure I see the full value,” he said. “I feel like we’ve lost our way.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

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