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The future of state testing is starting to be felt in New Jersey’s school districts, as schools push to get up to speed with the technology that will be needed for the new online assessments.

The testing — which is being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — is about to go through its first pilot evaluations in a about a dozen districts. State officials said it remains on track to be in place for the 2014-2015 school year.

Translation: by the spring of 2015, close to 1 million students between Grades 3 and 11 are expected to sit at laptops or tablets taking their annual state math and language arts exams.

New Jersey standardized tests
Students at Merit Prep, a charter school in Newark, work on computers. (Photo by Jackie Mader) Credit: Photo by Jackie Mader

That will be no small technological feat for an education infrastructure that plays catch-up every year as it is.

The state Department of Education has started to collect information from districts as to what they need in terms of technology, from software and high-speed connections to the number of available workstations or tablets.

State officials say it shouldn’t be too big a lift, with many schools already far along in their technology plan and expected to easily meet the requirements. But not all teachers and administrators share that optimistic opinion.

PARCC issued its latest specifications last month, and the state followed up with its own directives.

“The specifications [for the new testing] seem pretty low compared to what districts are doing anyway,” said Bari Erlichson, the state’s assistant commissioner, who is overseeing the effort and has been traveling the state to pitch its merits.

“These kind of devices should already be part of their instructional technology,” she said in an interview. “They should be using these devices in the daily learning.”

Still, at least anecdotally, several district leaders say this is likely to be a steep transition.

More than 500 school administrators took part in one of the first presentations of the plans in a department webinar last week, and several said the reality of the requirements is started to hit, with plenty of questions still to answer.

“We are certainly not up to the technology needed right now, and we have only two years before we need to be,” said Teresa Rafferty, interim superintendent in Piscataway, who said the requirements in her district alone will take $1.6 million investment up front.

About one-third of those costs will go to upgrading computers to meet operating system requirements. The rest is needed to ensure that enough computers will be available to test a single grade over the course of a day, perhaps by staggering morning and afternoon sessions.

Rafferty said a big iPad project is already underway in her middle schools. “But especially in the lower grades, we need equipment,” she said. “We have Netbooks, but I’m not sure they will work anymore. And there are earphones and external keyboards.”

She and others also talked about the larger cultural change in testing that’s coming at the same time as other shifts in school funding and accountability, including a new high-stakes teacher evaluation system that will be in place next year.

“The overall cost is significant, and I wonder if our technology dollars would be put to better use for student learning, rather than ensuring we have enough workstations and space to add additional assessments to a system already overburdened with testing,” said Charles Sampson, superintendent of Freehold Regional High School Districts.

The PARCC tests — and New Jersey’s own plans for separate end-of-course exams in high school — ultimately are meant to measure students against the new national Common Core State Standards. But the common core also is just being introduced to schools.

“No one would argue that better assessments for our students are worthwhile,” Sampson said in an email. “But PARCC was supposed to help us gauge our success with implementing new and improved standards. At this point in time, I question how that will occur anytime within the next several years.”

Others said there are countless questions as to how long and how extensive the testing will be.

“We are unclear at this time about the specifications and requirements of the testing environments and timelines. For example, how many students must have computer access simultaneously? What will be the testing window — how long do we have to test our students in a given grade?,” wrote Christopher Manno, superintendent in Burlington Township.

Erlichson said she recognizes many of the challenges for districts, as well as the state department itself. She has traveled to every corner of New Jersey to talk to school leaders about the changes ahead, trying to answer every question she can.

A frequent one is the cost, she said, and a purchasing consortia and other cost-saving plans are coming to help the technology buys. Erlichson wouldn’t address the possibility of new state funding, but some teachers and administrators asked about waivers for the state’s 2 percent budget caps.

Erlichson said the nature of the tests is still evolving, too, with plans now for both open-end assessments and multiple choice. She said some of the first practice runs will take place with a sampling of students in 12 to 15 districts this spring, with invitation letters now going out.

“We’re two years away, and there’s a lot of work to be done between now and then as this ramps up,” Erlichson said. “Today is a different story than what it will be when we field this in 2015.”

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