When the state Department of Education rolls out new state tests in 2014-15, it won’t be just students who must be prepared.
School districts around the state are scrambling to make sure they have enough computers and Internet bandwidth to test every student, and that the students will know how to use the technology for the online tests.
“This is not just about having enough devices — it’s about digital learning,” said Linda Carmona-Bell of the DOE’s Office of Educational and Information Technology.
“The devices can’t just sit there and wait for the assessments. They have to be part of the educational process,” Carmona-Bell told teachers and technology coordinators during a March workshop at Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township.
New Jersey is part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, a consortium of 22 states and the Virgin Islands that is developing tests in English and math based on the national Common Core Standards. The tests will be given twice a year in grades three through high school, and districts will have a 20-day window to complete them.
A survey by The Press of Atlantic City of local school districts found some will be ready, but others are still trying to find the money to make required upgrades, especially when faced with an annual 2 percent cap on increases to the local property-tax levy. Some have been using federal e-rate funds, distributed as part of the Universal Service fee included in phone bills. But that doesn’t cover everything.
Somers Point officials used a Talent 21 grant to upgrade infrastructure and purchase laptops for every sixth- and seventh-grader. Upper Township began upgrading five years ago on an annual schedule. Officials at both said they are confident they will be ready.
Woodbine used e-rate funds to upgrade infrastructure, and Title I and Talent 21 grants to upgrade some computers. But Superintendent Lynda Anderson-Towns said all of the computers in the lab are old ones donated by other schools and may be too outdated for the test.
“We are trying to do this in phases,” she said.
Internet bandwidth will be the main challenge for Ocean City’s schools, Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said. Technology manager Kathleen Nelson has calculated the district will need 100 megabits per second (Mbps), which is estimated to cost the district more than $6,000 per month. The district is working on the costs with its Internet provider, Verizon.
Atlantic City’s new schools are in good shape, but in February the school board approved almost $567,000 to upgrade the network electronics at the high school and the Brighton Avenue School to meet PARCC requirements.
The Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District has a technology plan, but the PARCC requirements may force it to be accelerated, said Superintendent Steven Ciccariello. He said the new Cedar Creek High School is good for the first couple of years of testing, but Oakcrest and Absegami will need upgrades.
The district expects to spend $30,000 to expand the bandwidth and network speed. About 200 new computers have been purchased, but another 200 may be needed to make sure there are enough that meet the testing requirements.
“You do not want to say that students did poorly on the test because the technology was not sufficient,” Ciccariello said. “We have to provide the best environment for students to be successful.”
That may mean having to train both teachers and students on how to take the test, and having enough trained staff to handle potential glitches.
Joseph Seaman of the state Department of Education told participants at the Stockton workshop that students must learn to use technology in an educational format, and they must learn on the equipment they will use to take the test.
“If students use iPads all year, then get moved to a desktop for the test, that’s not good,” Seaman said.
That is a growing issue for districts that have been adding a lot of iPads, which may not all be compatible with the test. Students reportedly will also need keyboards and headphones.
Nathan Frey, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Vineland school district, said his main concern is giving students enough time to practice so they are familiar with the technology and testing format. He said the district allocated $150,000 for network upgrades and has to make sure 18 school buildings can handle the test.
“IPads are easy because you can use them anywhere,” Frey said. “But then you still have to have the staff trained in case there are glitches during testing.”
Galloway Township has expanded the use of tablets over the past couple of years rather than replace desktop computers. Superintendent Annette Giaquinto said that based on current inventory, the district will need 120 devices, plus about 60 keyboards, to meet the minimum requirements.
Hamilton Township Superintendent Michelle Cappelluti said her district has a sufficient number of computers but will have to buy keyboards for the iPads, as well as headsets with microphones.
School officials are also concerned with how they will administer the tests. Some have a sufficient number of computers, but many are in classrooms, and not all are centralized in computer labs. State officials said districts can do what works best for them, and that students in one grade don’t necessarily have to all take the same test at the same time.
Frey said he has only counted computers he knows he can use for testing, which eliminates those in classrooms that may be occupied during testing periods.
Even with all of the planning, Ciccariello said, there are some things that are out of district officials’ control. If a car accident or a storm knocks out the cable connection, or the Internet goes down, a day or more of testing is lost. He also wondered whether the entire PARCC system will be able to handle potentially hundreds of thousands of students in different states taking tests at the same time.
“There is no technology problem that can’t be fixed with the right amount of money,” he said. “But how much is that, and can we afford it?”
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