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Schools may face technology problems to administer new standardized exam

2014-03-09T06:00:00Z 2014-03-12T00:16:01Z Schools may face technology problems to administer new standardized examBy DEREK BROUWER Independent Record Helena Independent Record
March 09, 2014 6:00 am  • 

With the introduction of a new computer-based standardized exam this month, technology in each of Montana’s schools — remote schoolhouses and city schools alike — will also be put to the test.

State and school officials have been working for more than a year to prepare for the switch, trying to ensure each school has enough hardware and bandwidth to give the exam and teachers are trained to administer it.

For a diverse, rural state, that’s not as simple as one might think.

Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Dennis Parman said the state anticipated adopting Smarter Balanced would put pressure on schools’ technological capacity.

“This is pushing the needle on that. Schools that really haven’t done much lately, it’s back on their radar now,” he said.

The exam itself doesn’t demand particularly fast computers but does require an Internet connection to run.

The Office of Public Instruction expects the state’s smallest schools to require the most upgrades. Parman said studies of broadband connectivity in the state indicate that fewer than 30 of Montana’s more than 800 schools are without high-speed service.

OPI has provided several tools for schools to analyze their “tech readiness,” however the onus is on individual districts to get up to speed — and make purchases, if necessary — before test day.

This spring will serve as a dry run for schools to find technology gaps and glitches in their infrastructure, according to State Superintendent Denise Juneau.

“The overarching goal is to make sure no one is not ready by next year, when it becomes official,” Kirk Miller, executive director of School Administrators of Montana, said.

One of Miller’s affiliate organizations, Montana Educational Technologists Association, won a contract from OPI earlier this year to provide technological support to schools. META staff members have contacted all schools to answer questions and offer tips and will operate a help desk during the testing window.

“This is the first time ever statewide we’ve needed to do a computer test,” Miller said. “We’re bound to run into some issues.”

Miller said technology needs of schools META has worked with have “run the gamut.”

Transitioning to the new test isn’t painless for a small school with limited funding and staff, said Woodman School supervisor teacher Louise Rhode.

Woodman School, west of Lolo, will test around 24 students this month.

The school’s only available Internet connection is through DSL, which it receives via a century-old phone line buried under a cattle field, Rhode said.

Diagnostic tests have suggested that Woodman has enough bandwidth to test up to 10 students at a time, if staff don’t browse on other computers or use the phone while the test is being administered.

“We’re prepared as best we can. We even considered busing to another place,” she said.

Rhode said preparing for the test has monopolized much of her time this year. She must travel to her home in Missoula to watch the test’s online trainings and webinars — the school connection isn’t fast enough.

“I can give the test from here but I can’t learn how to administer the test from here,” she said.

The change also will challenge some of Montana’s large districts, even those that already use other computerized assessments.

Helena Public Schools will test around 6,000 students, Assistant Superintendent Greg Upham estimates.

Only three of Helena’s 11 elementary schools have computer labs. The district doubled its bandwidth this year and purchased mobile technology carts ahead of the test, according to Upham.

“As a school, we are not tech-ready,” Broadwater Elementary Principal Sue Sweeney said.

The district will share the computer carts so each school can test its students more efficiently. School administrators are also being strategic about how they schedule the tests.

“We have to be very careful that we’re not taking instructional time away,” Upham said.

“It’s all technology,” he added. “Very simply, this: The more technology you have, the less impact on instruction.”

At Broadwater, students and staff are taking a practice test before tackling the actual exam. The program includes certain elements — an on-screen calculator and using the mouse to draw shapes — that could cause younger students who are unfamiliar with the program to stumble on test day, Sweeney said.

“I would say the teachers had more anxiety about the test than did the kids. They aren’t afraid of it,” Sweeney said.

Still, Broadwater staff is encouraging students to first write essays on scratch paper rather than type them directly into the test, as many aren’t yet fluent in keyboarding.

At Radley Elementary in East Helena, a couple hundred students will take the test.

“We’re actually in pretty good shape,” Principal Joe McMahon said.

The school has two computer labs, and each classroom has three computers. Every student in grades 3 through 5 has access to an iPad — which can’t be used to administer the test but helps students become comfortable using computers, McMahon said.

Like nearly half of Montana schools, Radley already assesses students regularly with a computer-based program called Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP.

“We knew (Smarter Balanced) was coming, and we knew we wanted our students to be able to sit at a computer for a while,” McMahon said.

In Boulder, it’s Internet speed that has Bruce Dyer, technology coordinator at Boulder Elementary, most concerned.

“We don’t have a lot of bandwidth. We have enough to test 25 students at a time,” he said.

Around 160 students at Boulder Elementary will take the test over about a month, Dyer said.

The school plans to upgrade its Internet connection over the summer, which will drastically increase the cost. Luckily, federal e-rate aid will cover more than three-quarters of the anticipated $2,000 monthly bill, he said.

Meanwhile, Amanda Nichols is confident her one-room schoolhouse in the Flathead Valley is ready to go.

The three students at Pleasant Valley Elementary, located 50 miles outside Kalispell, are outnumbered by the school’s four new computers.

“Our school is really well equipped with technology,” the teacher said.

The students already use the computers for MAP assessments and have taken a Smarter Balanced practice test.

“It’s amazing to have kids this day and age do so well with technology,” Nichols said. “They catch on quick.”

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(6) Comments

  1. aliloxton
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    aliloxton - March 18, 2014 8:23 am
    After a couple of practice test, I think it become easier for students as well as teachers to get used about this kind of exam. It is a good start by the way. I would appreciate for this. I would suggest you to use computer monitoring software like Faronics Insight. It helps teacher to easily monitor the test.
  2. AntiXenophobia
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    AntiXenophobia - March 10, 2014 10:09 am
    Student should take tests on computers for a couple reasons. The obvious one is that grown-ups do not do work on paper much any more, the world does work on computers, so we better get kids trained to do so as well. Another reason is the old paper tests were too easy for a lot of kids. You didn't get a bell curve with the old CRT test, a group of kids at every school would find the test at their grade level too easy, so the bell curve would have a big spike at the high end. The new tests, by being computerized, will scale to the student. Smart kids who are getting everything right will get harder and harder questions, which will give a more accurate depiction of where they are at. Kids who struggle will get easier questions, but get a wider variety of questions at their level to better assess which areas the kid struggles with and which areas the kid doesn't struggle. Because the tests scale to each student, they will provide a better picture of each student's abilities.
  3. AntiXenophobia
    Report Abuse
    AntiXenophobia - March 10, 2014 10:04 am
    The assessments in question are not supposed to tell a teacher how his or her kids are doing. These tests are given at the end of the school year and will help the teacher who gets the kid the following year. That teacher, on day one, will not know what each student is good at or struggles with, except by what is on their file, so the summative assessments are good for that. Each district also uses formative assessments throughout the year to do what you are talking about, help a teacher diagnose where each kid struggles and succeeds. You should investigate the different types of assessments used in education before judging the process. And while each test does come up with some sort of score which can be ranked, the test is actually tied to content standards, so you can take the math test results and learn that a kids struggles with mixed fractions, for example. Teachers do that sort of analysis, they don't pay a whole lot of attention to "someone's idea of a scale."
  4. Reader14
    Report Abuse
    Reader14 - March 10, 2014 8:32 am
    So what is the end goal of all this testing? Is it to benefit students by identifying who needs more help...and then actually providing it? Is it to evaluate teaching performance to see which teachers are promote better teaching? Is it a way for the Feds to beat States over the head when the results don't meet some arbitrary criteria? Or is it simply some bureaucrat in Washington came up with this brainstorm to spend money?

    If a teacher is any good, he/she will know which students need more help without spending a lot of time and money doing all this "testing". A standardized test doesn't evaluate any individual's ability to learn, or what they've learned to date. Every student is different, and may learn different things in different ways. A standardized test is merely a way to rank students to someone's idea of a scale. Bah. Another waste of taxpayer money and educational time.
  5. CarrollQueer
    Report Abuse
    CarrollQueer - March 09, 2014 10:18 am

    Yet another "crisis" created by the school district and board.

    In 2005 a technology levy was approved that would provide over $1 million dollars ($520,00 elementary, $559,00 high school) a year to maintain and upgrade the computer and IT systems. As of August 2012 the school district had over $2.3 million dollars available in this fund. A new technology "administrator" was hired in 2012 at a salary between $80 and $94,000.
    So why aren't our schools computer and IT systems up to date and running like they should be?
  6. caribouboy
    Report Abuse
    caribouboy - March 09, 2014 6:45 am
    The good news is that we're so fat with cash that we can have every student take their tests on computers rather than paper. If the coffers are overflowing I guess it's time for a tax cut.

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