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Schools struggle to pass digital test

Two years from now, hundreds of thousands of Michigan students will be expected to go online to take computerized statewide math, language arts and other standardized tests that now are conducted with paper and pencils.

The benefits include quicker results for school districts, tests that more accurately track what individual students know and longer test times for students who need them.

Yet, even as the demands of the computer age grow, many school districts are woefully behind the curve when it comes to having the technology in place they’ll need to conduct the tests. Juggling a mix of aging computers, frail networks, limited bandwidth and stripped-down information technology staffs with few of the resources available to their counterparts in the private sector, many school districts will have to make major technology investments if they’re going to be ready for students to take the mandatory tests online by spring 2015.

Lawmakers set aside $50 million in the 2012-13 school aid budget for school districts, intermediate districts and charter schools that participate in a Michigan Department of Education technology readiness survey and successfully apply for competitive grants to develop or upgrade their technology infrastructure. Districts must respond to the survey by today. The department recently began taking grant requests and will start handing out money in January.

As of Nov. 13, 39 percent of school districts and charter schools statewide had completed the survey. Of those, nearly 1 in 5 reported that they don’t have the necessary network bandwidth to handle large-scale testing. Further, around 10 percent of the computers in these districts lack enough memory to run the tests.

Proposed changes to state loan program could limit schools' ability to buy tech

Districts that link up with other districts or their intermediate school districts to jointly purchase equipment or collaborate on services to become “test ready” stand a good chance of getting some money, as do districts that increase educators’ ability to plan and implement online assessments and help students learn “any time, any place, any way, any pace,” a goal of Gov. Rick Snyder. No school district will be awarded more than $2 million.

Yet even if most grants are for far smaller amounts, it’s unlikely that more than around 75 of the state’s roughly 550 school districts and charter schools will get any money. That has school administrators worried.

“No one’s looking at $50 million and saying that’s a bad idea,” says Don Wotruba, deputy director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards. “But all of the costs that go with that technology aren’t addressed, at least in a proper way.”

Snyder’s chief strategist, William Rustem, says the administration is aware that many districts need to make changes to prepare for online testing.

“I don’t know if the $50 million solves the problem. But I do know it gets us a long way down the road,” Rustem says. “It’s not as if the state is standing back and saying, `You take care of this.’”

Wendy Zdeb-Roper, a former Rochester High School principal who’s now executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, says most school administrators support the idea of online testing, especially since they can get the results sooner than with paper tests and make adjustments more quickly to improve student learning. But they’re also wary of having to implement yet another state mandate at a time when per-pupil state funding remains tight.

Wotruba notes that it’s not just about buying more computers, but about having enough money to cover the costs of insuring them or replacing the ones that break, as well as the salaries of the technicians who keep the network and computers humming.

“Those are the people we laid off because we tried to keep our teachers” when funding got tight, Wotruba says.

National trend toward more testing

As part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, Michigan is one of 31 states drafting tests that cover more subjects grade-to-grade than the current high school Michigan Merit Exam or the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) tests taken by elementary and middle school students.

School districts still will be able to use paper tests through the 2017-18 school year, if they can’t meet the deadline. But the pressure’s on to move to the online tests because they’ll allow individual students’ progress to be measured year to year, a key component of Snyder’s plan to eventually tie state funding and teacher evaluations to whether each student learns a year’s worth material each school year.

According to the Gongwer News Service, the consortium program would add math and reading tests for grades 8 through 11 to the tests already conducted from grades 3 through 7, and add the writing component to tests administered in grades 3 through 11. The state also is developing reading, math and writing assessments that could be used for students in kindergarten through grade 2, as well as assessments for science and social studies curriculum taught in grades 3 through 12.

Testifying in July to a bipartisan education reform group in the House of Representatives, the director of the Education Department’s Bureau of Assessment and Accountability, Joseph Martineau, said many districts don’t have the information technology structure in place to support moving all their students off the paper tests at one time.

Wotruba says he knows of many school districts that will have a difficult time getting all their students enough computer time to take the tests, even if districts are allowed to stretch the testing period over weeks or months. And having enough computers is just one part of the equation.

“I need the broadband width, I need the wireless speed for that many kids to take the test at once,” he said. “I think (school districts) are far from ready to move the vast majority of kids to online assessment.”

Rustem says the grants are intended to help school districts look for ways to forge partnerships with each other, their intermediate school districts or the state that will make it easier to upgrade their technology and administer the tests.

“Technology gives us a way to track not only individual (progress) but … school progress,” Rustem says. “We just have to keep pushing, trying to get there, realizing there’s going to be challenges.”

Kathy Barks Hoffman covered Michigan government and politics for more than two decades as a reporter for the Detroit News, the Lansing State Journal and the Associated Press, where she headed AP’s Lansing Bureau for nearly 17 years. She now works for the Public Affairs Practice of public relations firm Lambert, Edwards & Associates.

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