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Testing technology was big lift for some districts

Are Colorado school districts ready for the state’s new online tests?

There are 178 different answers to that question (one for every school district in the state), but for the most part districts are confident in their technological readiness going into this spring’s exams.

For 76 districts, their preparedness now is being “tested” in real time, as they began giving the online language arts and math exams on Monday.

There have been glitches and problems in some districts and schools but no major technical issues, according to the Department of Education and a sampling of district officials around the state. In Adams 12-Five Star, for instance, problems were reported at only two of 36 schools, and those were issues like pop-up screens interfering with tests.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been stressful moments in classrooms and administrative offices.

Mapleton had to stop testing for five hours on Monday to reconfigure Windows computers being used for tests.

Superintendent Michael Clough said that in the Sheridan schools the situation is “a little better each day but still plagued by nagging issues – just like every time you rely on technology, you’re going to have problems.”

Testing also got off to a rocky start Monday in Montrose. On Wednesday, Superintendent Mark MacHale said, “Today was a better day. Reports from the field are that we are not experiencing the volume of issues we had in the first couple of days. We have our fingers crossed.”

CDE reported that 119,500 students were tested Wednesday. A total of 86,110 tests have been completed since Monday. (The exams are given in multiple sessions.)

District leaders interviewed before testing started were generally comfortable with their readiness.

Comments by Douglas Bissonette, superintendent of the Elizabeth schools, echoed what several others said and highlighted the checklist of what districts had to do to get ready.

“Our district is well prepared from a technology perspective…We believe we are fully ready to administer the PARCC tests.”

Stephen Clagg, chief information officer for the Aurora schools, has observed districts’ readiness in his role as president of the Colorado Association of Leaders in Education Technology.

Interviewed in August 2013, Clagg rated overall district preparedness then at C-minus.

He declined to give a letter grade this time, but he said, “I think we’re in better shape than we were two years ago, much better shape.” But, while he’s confident about his district’s readiness, he added, “I know that isn’t the case for every district.”

District hardware challenges

Preparing for online testing forced districts to face a long list of questions about their networks, inventories of laptops and tablets, and even the need to acquire more external keyboards and computer mice.

Some districts were farsighted or lucky, in that network improvements and hardware purchases intended to expand instructional use of computers coincided with the demands of testing.

Clagg said a multiyear district initiative to provide every classroom with a wifi hotspot “supports the testing. It was just a lucky break. … We can test in any classroom.”

More than 200 miles away at the tiny Center district in the San Luis Valley, Superintendent George Welsh said, “Our district has been investing in a one-to-one device program for the past eight years and finally achieved that last year, so in many ways we are in a good spot to implement such online assessments.”

Other districts faced different challenges and choices.

Rob Sanders, superintendent of the small Buffalo district in northeastern Colorado, said the district was saving up to replace eight-year-old computers, “When the PARCC and CMAS assessments came into play we had to hurry that purchase. We ended up spending approximately $40,000 which we did not have to purchase refurbished machines so that students could take the assessments.”

In Montrose, MacHale said the district had to take old desktop machines out of storage to use for testing.

In any event, the advent of online testing was good news for computer salesmen. In Cherry Creek, thanks to money provided by 2008 and 2012 tax elections, “We purchased about 25,000 Chromebooks over the last two years,” said spokeswoman Tustin Amole.

It takes more than hardware to test

Acquiring new hardware wasn’t the only hurdle districts faced.

“The challenge has been time and logistics,” said Cheyenne Mountain Superintendent Walt Cooper. “We are having to consolidate technology from several buildings to those that are testing, and our IT staff have had little time to do anything else but prep for testing for a number of weeks.”

Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger explained, “Every machine has to be touched by a technician to make sure it has the right software, secure tests. … There’s significant work that goes to getting ready for this.”

In Colorado Springs, “Depending on the size of school and amount of computers to prep, school library technology staff in District 11 has reported from 13 hours to 200 hours prepping for PARCC,” said district Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson.

The work requires more than the skills of computer techies. Many districts are using computer carts that have to be shuttled from classroom to classroom by teachers and other staff. In Montrose the carts will have to be moved school to school by warehouse workers, MacHale said.

Districts got a head start

Last spring districts had to give online science and social studies tests in selected grades, and many school gave sample PARCC tests in language arts and math.

District leaders and others agree that was a big help.

State testing director Joyce Zurkowski said “many” districts last year asked for visits by CDE and Pearson (the company that produced the tests) staff to check out their devices and systems. “The number of requests this year has greatly decreased.”

But this year some districts complain that the Pearson administrative system for language arts and math is different than the one used for social studies and science.

Both CDE and Pearson provided extensive pre-test training and advice for districts, and the testing company is available by phone and text for district questions and problems.

District leaders have varying opinions of how helpful the giant testing company is.

“It’s very difficult to rely on Pearson,” said Jessica Beller, instructional services coordinator in Montrose.

But Center’s Welsh said, “CDE and Pearson have been very helpful.”

What it all costs

It’s hard for districts to put firm dollar figures on the costs of preparing for and giving the new tests. A key reason for that is that districts, especially larger ones, spent the money for other reasons as well.

“This past year, our district invested more than $14 million in our IT infrastructure and devices to support blended learning in all of our classrooms as well as to prepare for online testing,” said Joe Ferdani, spokesman for Adams 12-Five Star.

Other, smaller districts are harder pressed. Eagle Superintendent Jason Glass said testing “will consume all of the district’s technology capacity in terms of devices, labs, IT staff to pull this off. As there have been no additional resources provided to build tech capacity to deliver the PARCC assessment, our district has diverted general fund dollars to get ready for this over the past few years.”

Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Jaclyn Zubrzychki conducted some interviews for this article.

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