The Partnership for the Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SMARTER Balanced) are developing the next generation of assessment tools in line with Common Core. And both consortia are developing online assessments that will replace traditional paper tests.
As Bailey Mitchell, chief technology and information officer at the Forsyth County (Ga.) Schools, states, “the new online assessments are going to require a lot of computer hardware and connectivity to enable the provision of Common Core.”
To meet these minimum requirements, district leaders are going to have to assess their bandwidth capabilities, their operating systems, the speed and number of machines required for testing, the quality and coverage of their wireless network, and both student and faculty familiarity with software and the digital testing environment.
Minimum Bandwidth Requirements
In May 2012, State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released “The Broadband Imperative,” a paper that addressed these upcoming infrastructure needs. In it, SETDA designed bandwidth benchmarks for schools, setting the minimum requirements at 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff by the 2014-2015 school year and 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2017-2018.
Schools need to include day-to-day operational bandwidth in their estimates concerning what is required just for testing, SETDA states. Classrooms that use digital teaching techniques, such as streaming audio and video feeds or virtual conferencing, along with administrative functions, such as Voice over IP (VoIP) telephone solutions, will continue to use bandwidth even as portions of the school are engaged in assessment.
Mitchell adds that district leaders must understand the unique broadband requirements that come from running so many educational devices, such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones on one network.
At the 2012 SETDA Leadership Summit, Carol Mosley, from Louisiana’s division of planning, analysis, and information resources, said that her state required that test administration be compatible with the Windows XP operating system. While online tests have been designed to be compatible with older operating systems, SETDA does point out that ideal testing environments will have the most recent operating system.
And while the minimum requirements for processing speed and RAM for testing machines varies from state to state, the state of Delaware, according to another SETDA report, “Technology Requirements for Large-Scale Computer-Based and Online Assessment: Current Status and Issues,” recommends that all future machines purchased for testing purposes have minimum specifications of a 1.3 GHz processor, 2 GB RAM, and an 80 GB hard drive.
Mosley, in her presentation, indicated that in their internal technology survey, Louisiana determined that their schools should have one machine for every seven students to ensure that testing is not slowed by machine availability.
And a third paper, “Getting Ready for Online Assessments,” written by Digital Learning Now!, urges district leaders to move beyond compliance. “Minimum requirements are just that—the bare minimum technical specifications needed for the technology to work,” the paper states. “It is critical that districts plan not for the minimum, but for what is needed to deliver a high-quality learning and assessment experience for students and teachers.”
Network Quality and Coverage
While ideal broadband rates may meet SETDA’s benchmarks, old wireless routing devices, less than ideal Wi-Fi coverage due to poorly placed routers, and outdated local network infrastructure can all hinder a network’s robustness. Thus, extensive network broadband verification, with multiple speed tests in various locations within a school building, needs to take place to ensure that the network infrastructure is up to speed, according to SETDA, in their report titled “Technology Readiness for College and Career Ready Teaching, Learning and Assessment.”
Student and Faculty Familiarity
Online assessments allow test writers to engage students beyond the fill-in-the-bubble methodology that has dominated standardized assessment in the past, experts have said, as noted in the technology readiness SETDA report These are not going to be the same multiple-choice tests that are simply delivered on computers as opposed to on paper.
Although Virginia is not implementing Common Core, the Department of Education has developed a strategic plan that parallels that of the SETDA recommendations. Sarah Susbury, director of the office of test administration, scoring, and reporting for Virginia, analyzed the success of Virginia’s online testing preliminary implementation. And it was clear that states should focus on training and practice testing so that students and faculty are familiar with the testing environment before taking the official assessment, Susbury adds.
And as the “Getting Ready for Online Assessments” report states, “schools should make testing environments as close to learning environments as possible. Districts should therefore plan for the type of technology they need to deliver digital learning experiences that students are demanding.”
Network Infrastructure Solutions
Organizations, such as Education Superhighway, assess4ed.net, and SMARTER Balanced, provide bandwidth speed testers for educators who want to make sure they are meeting minimum bandwidth requirements. Similarly, according to Mitchell, the Consortium for School Networking has launched a leadership initiative, called the Broadband Knowledge Center, to provide schools with easily accessible broadband information.
SETDA recommends that schools purchase local caching software that can alleviate some of the bandwidth demands on schools that may have trouble upgrading to a robust network due to finances, and consider testing on wired devices, like desktops or wired laptops, as wireless coverage can be uneven, especially in larger school buildings.
Susbury indicates that Virginia has begun providing professional development so that faculty can become familiar with new online testing methods.
The first step for a district is to investigate what sort of support is provided by its state. The Georgia Department of Education, for example, runs a statewide network that helps augment Forsyth County’s needs for internet connectivity, says Mitchell. And the district has been able to leverage federal e-Rate funds to discount what they need and keep costs down, he adds. District leaders worked closely with network provider Comcast to negotiate for a network that has bandwidth that can be adjusted as needed. “You could describe it as a district network and internet connection that has a volume knob. We can initiate needed increases without having to buy costly updates,” Mitchell says.
The increase in bandwidth will be the result of a transition from print-centric classrooms to digitally-rich classrooms that include wireless devices, integrating audio and video feeds, and the inevitable acceptance of student smartphones and tablets, he adds.
Diana McGhee, director of technology at the Ft. Thomas (Ky.) Independent Schools, also emphasizes the value of controlling bandwidth. “By employing Microsoft’s Threat Management Gateway network security software, we are able to reduce the amount of data streaming from sites such as YouTube and Netflix during online assessments to provide the greatest bandwidth possible for students as they take the test,” McGhee says.
This is especially important considering the Ft. Thomas district’s Bring Your Own Device policy. Regulating bandwidth access during test time ensures that those who need the bandwidth can receive it. And to make sure that bandwidth is not lost within the network infrastructure, the district’s six buildings are fibered in a wide area network (WAN) which provides them with a 10 Gbps connection to their network core. Such a fast connection is important as testing requires communication with a central and secure server.
The district began its network upgrades during the 2009-2010 school year and financed more than $200,000 toward the endeavor with a five-year lease, meaning that their final payment will be due during the 2013-2014 school year.
“Such a payment plan is a perfect way to make an extensive network upgrade feasible for your district,” McGhee concludes. “With proper planning and budgeting, any school district can do what we’ve done.”
Andrew Dyrli Hermeling is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.