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Districts brace for debut of online state testing

April 13, 2014 Updated: April 13, 2014 at 10:30 am
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Lori Benton assists the IT at the Lewis-Palmer Middle School in preparation for Monday's new online testing for the students Friday, April 11, 2014. Photo by Mason Trinca, The Gazette

The three-week window for Colorado's inaugural debut of online-only standardized testing opens Monday, and while a few bugs are expected, some are already biting hard.

"It's a beast," said Lori Benton, director of assessment and gifted education for Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument. "We're getting emails daily from the Colorado Department of Education. It's insane."

While school districts have been preparing for the launch since last year and say they are as ready as they can be, nervousness and frustration have descended.

Because as Benton said, the concern in her district - consistently one of the region's top performers - is not how well students will do on material that the CDE admits is more rigorous than previous assessments, but whether the new computerized format will work.

"Can we pull off the actual test? Even with all the test-readiness, when the game keeps changing and different information keeps coming out, it causes anxiety," she said.

While districts gear up to give it their best shot, state officials hope that patience, understanding and an eye on the future will help everyone get through the mountain of changes.

"We've been working with a variety of browsers and configurations, and that is where we're expecting to see some bumps," said Joyce Zurkowski, the CDE's executive director of assessment.

"People cannot expect this first time out to be perfect. If we allow some tolerance for learning, it will make next year easier."

She's not anticipating anything as drastic as a system-wide failure, though, which students in Oklahoma, Minnesota, Kentucky and Indiana experienced last year, when servers crashed during testing and students were kicked offline.

"We are not utilizing those test engines or companies," Zurkowski said. "The company we're using, Pearson, has an extensive background in providing online assessments. We're confident they'll be able to handle the volume.

"With that said, this is technology."

Replacing the TCAP

The revised, computer-based assessments match higher learning expectations the state adopted under the Colorado Academic Standards and will replace the TCAP, or Transitional Colorado Assessment Program.

In the past year, 520 schools in 117 districts participated in field tests to give the system a trial run, Zurkowski said.

"Students indicated they were more engaged, and they preferred online to paper-based testing overall," she said.

Students found online tools helpful, such as calculators, rulers and highlighting, Zurkowski said, but also said some of the questions were hard.

"There were comments made like, 'There's stuff on this test I haven't done,'" she said.

The practice assessments were helpful, said Mike Pickering, superintendent of Falcon School District 49's POWER Zone.

"It was generally positive feedback," he said. "The biggest 'ah-ha' we noticed was we need at least one or two tech people in every single room, because if something goes down in the middle of testing, you've got to have someone right there."

Colorado Springs School District 11 students also seemed to like the computerized format during field testing, said Janeen Demi-Smith, executive director of educational data and support services.

Both students and staff had "a little learning curve," she said, "but by the second session seemed totally comfortable with the system."

The real deal starts this week.

All fifth and eighth graders in Colorado's public schools will take new science tests, and fourth and seventh graders will be tested on social studies knowledge. It's the first time social studies will be part of Colorado's assessments.

Results won't be released until early fall, Zurkowski said, as panels of educators need to determine proficiency levels for the new assessments over the summer.

Scores won't count toward school ratings or teacher performance, which Zurkowski said gives "more flexibility to deal with the bumps."

But the number of students participating will go on the record, as the federal government has a national standard participation rate of 95 percent.

This fall, seniors will be tested for the first time in science and social studies.

Next spring, online reading, writing and mathematics tests developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, a multi-state consortium, will come on board for grades 3-11.

Keith King, administrator of Colorado Springs Early Colleges, a charter high school, calls the new assessments "a disaster."

"In our case, it dumbs down our curricula," he said. "A student might be in calculus but need to re-study algebra 1 and 2 to do good on the test."

And the expansion of new subjects and grades means more time spent on testing.

"We're going to have six weeks - almost 25 percent of the school year - with major standardized assessment going on," Pickering noted. "It's taxing on personnel and students."

Funding the mandate

In addition to lining up what's being taught in the classroom with test content, school districts have invested time and money training staff, making sure technology and equipment is adequate, setting up testing stations and hiring workers to monitor and troubleshoot.

Students can test on desktop computers, laptops, iPads or Chromebooks. The latter two were added after feedback from the field tests, Zurkowski said.

Schools are administering the tests in regular classrooms, computer labs, mobile stations and open common areas.

Cheyenne Mountain School District 12's superintendent, Walt Cooper, is bracing for possible "mayhem for a month."

"We have to set up 150 computers in the high school gym to manage the volume. So how do you carry on a normal school day?" he said. "It doesn't make sense."

Pickering said with computer labs out of commission for regular instruction during testing and many licensed staff dedicating their work time to the assessment, "it's a big resource commitment."

The process is more complicated than the old paper-and-pencil version in several ways, Benton said.

"It's not like you can open a test booklet and turn to the page," she said.

Instead, she said, students encounter a complex log-in procedure.

Many logistics need to be addressed. Headphones are required for audio parts of the tests. Barriers are going up between some testing areas to prevent cheating, along with online security.

The CDE is asking all students in one grade level to be tested at the same time or at least in the same day, in staggered intervals, also to prevent them from sharing questions and answers. And the maximum ratio of adults to students is one-to-30.

"There's no way that works for fourth and fifth grade students - you need more bodies to help them access the test, so we have to bring people in," Benton said.

D-38 is budgeting $17,000 just to hire temporary employees to help during testing next school year, she said.

D-49 is shuffling around money to cover extra costs related to the testing, Pickering said.

"It's burdensome," he said. "From a monetary resource aspect, it's impactful to our schools. It's something to have a conversation about."

Some rural districts have been "hammered" with trying to get their technology up to speed to handle the computerized testing, said Brian Bylund, director of technology for the Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The organization, known as BOCES, helps its 14 member districts find ways to best use educational dollars effectively, including coming into compliance with the new testing.

"Here's another requirement and no more personnel or money to do it," Bylund said. "It's expensive in our small districts in rural and eastern El Paso County to get internet connectivity and bandwidth because there's little or no competition. But we've gotten the districts we represent into pretty good shape. They're doing the best they can with their capabilities."

D-11's Demi-Smith said change almost always produces some anxiety - until people become familiar with the different approach.

"Once they see how engaged the students are with the test they'll like it," she predicts.

Pickering said he hopes the results will be worth the effort.

"I'm hopeful they pinpoint particular areas with students in a user-friendly format," he said. "There's no reason to give an assessment if we can't get some type of formative feedback for our kids."

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