Online Assessments Test the Limits of Public School Technology

John Mooney, Founding Editor | September 27, 2012 | Education
Half of NJ districts lack adequate computers, Internet capacity

As New Jersey moves toward a whole new battery of online testing, starting in 2014, a big obstacle stands in the way: At least half of its public school districts don’t yet have the necessary technology.

In a survey this spring and summer, the state Department of Education found that just half of the districts had the estimated bandwidth needed for the testing and only half were using operating systems that will be up to date.

New Jersey officials yesterday said they were likely to do follow-up surveys to determine the needs, school by school, adding that it was premature to determine what steps would be taken next.

The state’s Assistant Commissioner for Innovation, Evo Popoff, said at a meeting of school superintendents last week that he was not discouraged by the results and there would be a “far-reaching effort” to train staff and wire schools.

Still, it is just another of the daunting tasks facing New Jersey schools as the state shifts to new curriculum guidelines under the Common Core State Standards and the online testing it will bring beginning in the 2014-2015 school year.

New Jersey is part of a consortium of two dozen states — known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — that relies heavily on computer-based testing as many as four times a year.

The survey, conducted between May and June to determine districts’ capabilities for secure and reliable online testing, asked questions ranging from current costs to details about Internet carriers. More than 90 percent of districts responded.

There was a great deal of focus on how much bandwidth is available to districts, given that large numbers of students will be taking the Internet-based assessments at the same time. In his presentation last week, Popoff said 100 Mbps of bandwidth would likely be more than adequate, yet the survey found that just 51 percent of schools had that much. In terms of districts, it was less than half.

In addition, the PARCC guidelines are very specific about the technology needed, even stipulating the size and resolution of monitors. While the final parameters are yet to be released, the survey found that more than half the schools are using the Windows XP operating system, which Microsoft will no longer support by 2014-2015.

The technological hurdles have been a nationwide topic of concern, since nearly every state will rely heavily on computers both to administer the tests and to quickly analyze results.

The assessment systems will also include vast online databases of sample test questions and other curriculum tools for teachers to use between the school-wide assessments.

In a Washington, D.C., hearing in April, state and federal technology officers lamented the sizable tasks ahead of them, from the issues of capacity to the security and integrity of the testing.

One of the issues still unresolved is what kinds of hardware will be required, desktop computers or mobile devices.

Among those testifying were state officials from Virginia, where online testing has been in place since 2000. Virginia is one of the few states not joining the online assessment consortium; according to news reports, its officials warned that it took the state six years to phase in online testing.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was first published, including a clarification of the operating system that will be required.