Putting the Technology Behind Ohio's New Standardized Exams to The Test

Students in Lancaster take a practice test. Photo courtesy of StateImpact's Amy Hansen.
Students in Lancaster take a practice test. Photo courtesy of StateImpact's Amy Hansen.
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Just a few days before the beginning of the new exams in Lancaster, an hour outside of Columbus, the district’s elementary curriculum coordinator Sarah Westbrooks is stressed.

“My responsibility is for 3,000 students," she said. "And the day of, if a student isn’t uploaded, or something doesn’t work correctly on the student end, then ultimately, it’s my position, it’s my job.”

But she put on a calm, cheerful face while running students and teachers through a few rounds of last-minute practice on the PARCC exams, an acronym for the national testing consortium that developed the tests.

During the practice at Lancaster, students adapt pretty well, doing things like highlighting text or writing an essay after watching a video, all skills necessary for a test that requires analytical thinking and in-depth responses.

Westbrooks said she’s not overly worried about student anxiety taking the exam, she’s more concerned about her colleagues.

It’s the first time Ohio teachers have encountered an online assessment of this size, and Westbrooks wants to make sure they can handle any problems that could pop up, like this one she encountered.

“All 25 laptops said ‘no internet connection,'" she said. "Well, unfortunately, the test is run through the internet, so they couldn’t sign on to the test. We got it resolved, but things like that can happen when it’s a technology driven test.”

Like schools nationwide, Lancaster invested into hardware and infrastructure upgrades--around $250,000 just in new computers, according to school officials.

During the PARCC exams, computer labs are now strictly devoted to testing.

Teachers can’t take their kids there for class activities like researching or creating presentations.

Standing in the hall outside her classroom, instructor Jodi Hughes she explains that the district invested in iPads for all of her third-grade students.

But she just learned that her students may not be able to use the tablets because of bandwidth limitations.

"That was another panic I just got yesterday," she said. "Because I need to go back and look at how I’m teaching, and probably pull out the worksheets and some of the things I tried not to do as much before, but if I can’t use the iPads then our entire schedule will change for those few weeks.”

But the rigor of the exams--and their emphasis on technology--is necessary to keep Ohio’s children competitive, said state department of education spokesman John Charlton.

A trial-run of testing software last spring pointed out only minor problems, he said.

Plus, despite any last-minute snafus, districts have known these exams were coming for a few years.

“It’s their responsibility to make sure that they’re ready to offer these assessments and give the students the best advantages that they can," he said.

Two years ago, Akron Public Schools’ assessment specialist Aimee Kirsch said the district started making moves in getting the necessary technology, investing in new laptops and stronger Internet connections.

Those upgrades ensured the hardware was ready.

But Kirsch said district staff felt like they didn’t have enough timely information from the testing company and the state to make sure teachers were prepared.

“Students, and particularly teachers, are going to feel kind of frustrated, because it is technology-based and it’s new," Kirsch said. "We just didn’t feel like from the testing team or the technology team that we could really provide enough support, hands on support, in those buildings when testing was occurring.”

This year, lawmakers gave school districts a pass, letting them choose how they’d like to administer the exams.

The majority of Akron students will take a paper version.

Other big districts, including Cleveland and Columbus, are giving a mix of both paper-and-pencil and computerized tests.

Students across the state will continue to take these math and English exams until the middle of March.

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