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When Colorado students take end-of-grade exams next spring, many will face arguably the hardest tests yet of their education careers. Rather than bubbling in answer sheets, students in five grades will complete various tasks on computers to show their mastery of new science and social-studies standards, which are rolling out this year across the state.

The state exams will also serve as a trial run for the new Common Core math and English language arts exams, set to debut in Colorado, and as many as 43 other states, in 2015. Like the standards themselves, the computerized tests are intended to be more rigorous—and demand more of students—than previous exams. And as the state begins to incorporate student test scores into educator evaluations, the new exams will carry high stakes for teachers.

The new state tests are just one of many sweeping reforms hitting Colorado this year, including new standards for 10 content areas and overhauled teacher evaluation systems. Yet they are putting the greatest financial strains on districts, which are scrambling to ramp up technology and Internet access, often in the face of extensive budget cuts.

“It’s a big shift for our districts to go to a computer-based system,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment in the Colorado Department of Education.

Colorado is making a gradual transition in case technological problems arise; across-the-board testing will follow in all core content areas in 2015. Some experts and officials in states that adopted online testing years ago, like Virginia, have cautioned that the speed at which many states are moving to online tests is unwise.

Common Core exams
A sample problem from the new fifth-grade science assessment asks students to adjust the lines on an interactive graph to represent levels of water. (Source: Pearson)

In the 2012-13 school year, chaos erupted as several states launched new online testing programs. In Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Virginia, glitches halted testing for thousands of students, causing delays and anxiety while opening the door to lawsuits. In one dramatic instance, Wyoming temporarily abandoned its online tests after a 2010 debacle. In the aftermath, the state fired its education superintendent and sued the test provider, Pearson, which is the vendor for Colorado’s new science and social-studies exams.

“Our hopes are that we will go through as many of the bumps this fall and this spring as we can,” said Zurkowski.

For many districts, the demands of the upcoming state tests have proven taxing. Dan Snowberger, superintendent of Durango’s schools, says the district spent more than twice what it usually spends on computers per year in anticipation of the tests. Instead of simply replacing old desktop computers for use in labs, the district bought laptops and mobile carts for every school—which cost about $450,000.

Still, Snowberger says he is grateful the costs weren’t higher. “We are fortunate in Durango, our bandwidth is certainly stronger than [in] rural districts,” he said. “It is certainly an issue in rural parts of Colorado.”

Common Core exams

This year, the state Department of Education created an online technology readiness tool that allows districts to check their capacity to handle new tests. Katy Anthes, the state’s director of educator effectiveness, says Colorado is using the information to support districts individually.

“We’re figuring out solutions,” Anthes said, adding that some districts may need to administer the tests over more days if they don’t have enough computers. If Internet bandwidth is an issue, Anthes said districts can also cache the assessment, or download it to a local network, thus reducing bandwidth requirements.

It’s an ideal solution, according to Zurkowski. “We’re trying really hard not to present it as an option,” she said. “We’re trying to present it as a requirement.”

A July 2012 report from the Evergreen Education Group found that many Colorado schools still lack the necessary infrastructure to handle the technology requirements of interactive tests.

For some districts, field tests have already highlighted gaps in technology readiness. In the Elizabeth School District, about an hour southeast of Denver, superintendent Douglas Bissonette said the district may have enough computers, but officials realized only last month that the resolution of its computer screens wasn’t satisfactory.

Scott Pankow, superintendent of the Ouray School District in southwestern Colorado, which tested out the new social-studies and science assessments last year, says administering the tests for all fourth- and seventh-graders was difficult. “It was a tax on our system,” Pankow said, adding that in rural areas like his, the speed and reliability of the Internet can be concerns.

The district will need more server space, but Pankow says finding the money is a challenge. “We’ve had to readjust our budget … and see what accounts we can tap into.”

Teachers brace for changes

The switch to online tests may be the most nerve-wracking for teachers, who are concerned about how students will handle the new format, and how test scores will affect their jobs. (In the 2014-15 school year, student scores will be factored into teacher evaluations and ultimately also tenure decisions.) The new exams come after years of stagnant scores that educators anticipate will drop when students take harder tests.

On the new science and social-studies tests, students will be asked to answer questions in a variety of ways, including dragging information into charts, typing written responses, and adjusting interactive graphs to represent scenarios presented in word problems. For the math and English exams, students will have to place fractions on a number line, create graphs, and write paragraphs in response to reading passages.

At a June training in Durango, teachers crowded into a small room at Fort Lewis College to learn about the coming changes. One teacher asked if spelling and punctuation will count in scores on the science and social-studies exams. (They won’t.) Another teacher asked if keyboarding ability has been factored into scoring. (It hasn’t.)

Zurkowski, of the Colorado Department of Education, says that computer skills are an “instructional issue,” as the new standards require that students engage with technology. “Kids are more comfortable, in some cases, with the technology than they are with paper and pencil,” she said.

Although the tests may require more of students, Zurkowski says they only reflect what kids will now be learning in classrooms. “We’re setting a new baseline,” she said. “We have new and different expectations than we’ve ever had before.”

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