Md. schools need $100 million in technology upgrades for new testing

Exam aligned with Common Core must be given online

January 16, 2014|By Liz Bowie and Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland schools will be scrambling to make $100 million in technological and other upgrades to give new state tests aligned with the Common Core standards next year, according to a report to the legislature by the Maryland State Department of Education.

Some local school systems would need to shut down some of the normal uses of the computers, including sending email, to give the online standardized tests, the report said. Some districts reported that they need to buy thousands of new computers for the tests, which are required by the spring of 2015; others said they had nowhere to put the computers that they need to buy.

Lawmakers briefed Wednesday said the magnitude of the hurdles that school districts face — and the price tags — are concerning.

"Some of the data that they showed us raises some concerns," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and member of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

While he supports the Common Core and new assessments, Pinsky said, he is concerned that some districts are reporting the need for up to 15,000 more devices, as in Harford County, and millions of dollars in upgrades that they will have to pay for out of their budgets.

"I just want to be sure that we're prepared," he said. "If not, we might need to look at slowing down. You don't jam this down a local jurisdiction's throat when they're not ready for it."

The state is switching to online tests that will replace the Maryland School Assessments and match content taught under Common Core-inspired curriculum that was fully implemented across the state this year.

In March, one classroom in each school in the state will field test the new exams, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

In the spring of 2015, all students in grades three through 11 will take the tests in English and math.

The tests are designed to be more rigorous than the MSAs. The tests will be given over nine days, compared with four for the MSAs, and students will be tested for nearly twice as many hours.

"The big takeaway was that the biggest impediment to making sure that the PARCC tests come off a year from now, without the kind of problems we've had with the health exchange website, is too many of the counties are too far behind in investing in their digital infrastructure," said Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a member of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee whose district includes parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.

While a paper-and-pencil version of the test will be available for the first three years, schools are expected to give the tests online, which is cheaper, starting in spring 2015. The online version is mandatory in the 2017-2018 school year.

At a high school with 2,000 students and one or two computer labs, the regular instruction will have to cease for weeks at a time while the students who take tests are cycled through the computer lab, said Lloyd Brown, the executive director of information technology for Baltimore County schools.

Brown said he is not worried about giving the tests online by 2017-2018 because by that time the school system expects to have purchased a tablet or laptop for every student.

But giving the tests a year from now is "shaky," he said, because the school system will have to reallocate computers throughout the county to "relieve some of the pain."

"Making sure students are comfortable without stress is something I worry about," he said.

In Anne Arundel County, school officials are not worried about whether they will have enough computers; they're worried about where the computers and students will fit.

"We need more devices for sure," officials wrote in the state report, "but if we got them the big problem would be where to put them."

The Anne Arundel school system conducts online testing in computer labs, but said that without more space, it would need to use smaller devices or laptops and move them from classroom to classroom on a cart. Even with those, wireless and battery-life issues could arise.

But Anne Arundel school spokesman Bob Mosier said the district is not in any rush to buy technology for the tests.

"We have made this conscious decision not to run out and buy slews of technology that by the time we give the rollout of PARCC could be outdated," he said.

In Baltimore, which was not included in the report, city officials said Thursday that they had been surveying infrastructure needs to support PARCC.

Kim Robinson, interim director of the city's Office of Achievement and Accountability, said about 60 percent of the schools have the ability to administer PARCC and that the district would need at least 3,000 new devices such as laptops.

"We're feeling like that's obviously a big investment but one that feels fairly manageable since the majority of our schools are really within reach to be able to close those gaps," Robinson said.

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