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Shift to online testing drives California schools to close tech gap

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The largest field test in the country of new online assessments aligned to the Common Core got underway in California this spring, and as it speeds up the state’s transition to the rigorous new standards, it may also help close the digital divide.

“This is the tipping point,” said Diane Hernandez, director of assessment development for the California Department of Education (CDE). “Schools are starting to focus on the Common Core. We’re moving away from paper and pencil tests to a completely different format and developing more skills in terms of college and career readiness. Everything is moving in the direction of more technology, and everyone is doing the best they can to prepare for that.”

The shift began last spring, when Gov. Jerry Brown announced that every district would receive a proportional share of $1.25 billion in state-funded Common Core block grants that could be used for training teachers, new instructional materials and technology. That shift accelerated a few months later when the state decided to discontinue the annual assessment based on the old state standards and focus only on the field test of Smarter Balanced, one of two national online assessments developed to support the rigorous Common Core standards.

If everything goes as expected, students will be tested on a final version of Smarter Balanced next spring and the results will be reported to the public. These changes have motivated every district to take a hard look at its technological capacity.

“The field test is encouraging schools to start using technology well in advance of what they might have otherwise done,” acknowledged Cindy Kazanis, director of the CDE’s education data management division.

The move is happening not a minute too soon. In California, like many other states, the level of technology available to students varies tremendously from district to district, school to school. “We have some schools that have everything and others where technology is definitely lacking,” said Ben Sanders of the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), a collaborative whose 10 districts include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach and Sacramento. “I’ve seen schools that are surprisingly under equipped, right here in the Bay area, which is supposed to be the zenith of technology.”

That assessment was echoed in a “digital report card” published this year by Digital Learning Now, a group that advocates for more online learning. California received an F, along with 27 other states including Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, based on the state’s digital learning infrastructure. No state earned an A and only five got a B. The ranking looked at whether all schools have high-speed broadband, all teachers and students have internet-access devices and whether the state had met certain benchmarks to ensure effective data use. (The report card also includes separate rankings on access to online education and funding for cyber learning among other tech issues.)

“This is the tipping point.” Diane Hernandez, director of assessment development for the California Department of Education.

While some districts, notably Los Angeles Unified, are aspiring to the gold standard of one computer per student, very few districts in California are anywhere near that goal now. Julian Union Elementary School District, outside San Diego, is one of them. Every student in the district has access to an iPad, said Superintendent Kevin Ogden, and the district’s broadband capacity can easily handle the new online testing requirements. The only things Julian administrators had to buy when the field test was announced were additional keyboards to plug into the tablets.

At the other end of the state, in northern Lassen County, Superintendent Rich DuVarney faced very different challenges. Even with the state block grant, this rural county has very limited funding for technology, and chose to invest in more bandwidth and servers to prepare for the test. “Now, out of our 10 districts, we only have bandwidth issues in two” of the smallest, he said. “We have computer labs in most of our schools, with 30 computers or so, and we’ll just run the classes through there.”

The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit organization created to boost academic achievement in 17 of the city’s lowest performing schools in Boyle Heights, Watts and South LA, says it has invested heavily in technology in recent years. “We’ve been rolling out blended learning for the last three years and have increased the number of [computer] carts with hot spots and computer labs in our schools,” said Colleen Oliver, the group’s chief academic officer. “We also have small stations of computers in some of our classrooms.”

Yet as they prepared for the field test, the partnership found that some of its computers were simply too old to run the new assessment. In addition, “infrastructure issues have been a little bit of a challenge, given that some of our schools are old and have high levels of poverty,” she said. “Very few of our schools have broadband. Most still have T1 lines.” When the partnership tested capacity at some schools by taking all the computers online at once, they found that the system “was really slow,” she said. “So we had to figure out ways around that.” Typically, that meant testing “a limited number of students over multiple days, using as many computers as were capable of being used for this,” she said.

Digital Divide

Digital education may be the future, but most American schools are far from ready. Our series examines the national effort to close the digital divide by connecting all American schools to high-speed Internet, and why so many schools still lag so far behind.

The Promise: Digital education is supposed to transform public education, but many schools can’t even get online

The Problem: Instead of getting ready for the tech revolution, schools are scaling back

The Solution: How can schools close the technology gap and how much will it cost?

Sanders said he recently checked in with a number of CORE members and found that their technology purchases in preparation for the field test varied widely. “Some districts have spent 100 percent of that [block grant] money on technology while others have spent something like 30 percent,” he said. “I also heard a lot of concern expressed about the ongoing cost. We all know technology continually advances and these devices will need to be upgraded, repaired and replaced as they become outdated.”

The field test has also prompted districts to rethink their technical support needs. “Very few of our schools have a technical expert in the school,” Oliver said. “Some have a part-time technician but most have none. Instead, the principal and the teachers serve in that role, and that is proving challenging at best. As we move forward toward high-stakes tests on computers, we will have to rethink how we staff schools and what kind of IT support we will need. It’s not going to be a luxury much longer, but a necessity.”

State officials seem to be hearing those concerns. In mid-May, the governor announced that the state will provide an additional $26.7 million in one-time funding for technical assistance and grants to ease schools’ transition to the online assessment. New legislation has also been introduced proposing another round of block grants that schools can use to buy additional technology. But even without further funding, Sanders said, “the field test has produced a more level playing field to some degree.”

As their investment in technology increase, schools are rethinking how they’re using computers in the classroom. Districts “did not purchase new devices for just a one-time test,” Kazanis said. “They are making these decisions in concert with their curriculum needs, their technology needs, the kind of professionals they have” so they can integrate the computers into their everyday class work. For example, in Los Angeles, the PLA schools are using their computers to emphasize skills encouraged by the Common Core and the new assessments, including complex problem solving, critical thinking and evidence-based writing.

“Our kids don’t write essays on a computer as frequently as I would like,” said Oliver. “So our students are struggling more with the writing part (of the test) and the speed at which they need to write. We learned we have to build in more writing fluency.” As a result, she said, students are spending more time on the computer learning to analyze information as they read and “cite the reference in their answers.”

The results of the field test will not be shared with individual schools or the public at large. It is, in effect, a test of the test, said Hernandez, rather than a true representation of what the final version of the new assessment will look like. The field test “is just a random set of items that reflect all the different kinds of questions the kids will be asked — not all the content,” she said. When the results come in from the 20,000 assessment questions and performance tasks being evaluated, national and state testing experts will scrutinize them to determine “which items functioned well” and which revealed patterns of inherent gender, racial or ethnic bias, or were simply confusing to students. Schools, meanwhile, having seen the field test, will have a better idea of what they need to do to prepare their students before testing season rolls around again next spring and they face the real deal.

“I can confidently say that the test is motivating schools to accelerate their efforts to transition to the Common Core,” said Sanders of the CORE schools. “And overall, the teachers seem to think it’s worthwhile and it’s testing the kinds of things the kids should be doing. The test is providing some clarity about where we’re trying to go.”

This story is part of a series examining the digital divide in American schools. Read more about how technology is changing education.

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