A little testy

First Posted: 3/29/2014

LIMA — Earlier this month, the Ohio Department of Education announced the creation of the Next Generation Assessments, two new online student assessment systems, one testing students in grades 3 through 8 as well as high school in math and English and the other testing in science and social studies.

School districts throughout the state, including ones in this region, have been or will be conducting field tests of these assessments.

While the students are not graded for their work, the hope is that the feedback will help the department perfect the testing system before rolling it out to all schools in the state next year.

The idea behind the testing, according to Elida superintendent Don Diglia, is a good one.

“The online testing itself is a good idea,” he said. “We can get the results back a lot quicker.”

However, some districts are concerned that this new assessment system will be much harder to implement once used for the entire student population.

“Having enough technology will be a challenge when we’re testing everybody,” said Amber Straub, director of development and assessment for Shawnee schools. “With the field test, it was a smaller subset of the population, so we were able to handle it with what we had. But when we’re testing everyone at the designated grade levels, it will be very difficult for us.”

Because Shawnee tested both the math and English assessment, known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, as well as the science and social studies test, known as Ohio Online Field Tests, Straub found that these two formats are extremely different, creating additional problems for districts that have to administer these tests.

“The field testing was complicated by the fact that we were testing two different systems, PARCC and Ohio Online, which is a whole different setup, with different instructions and scripts,” she said.

Another issue districts are facing is that to administer these assessments, the computers used by the students have to be set up to exclusively offer the exam and nothing else.

“We will have to utilize our computer labs for testing during the testing window and not for the intent that they were originally designed for as student and teacher resource labs,” Ottawa-Glandorf superintendent Kevin Brinkman said.

“It will be very challenging when we have to use our devices and prepare them for testing, because everything else on the computer has to be shut down,” Straub said. “They can’t go out to the Internet for security reasons. It will take away from class time.”

“The problem is that each testing window is 20 days, so you tie up that computer lab for 40 days out of the year, those are 40 days when instruction does not occur,” Lima schools director of technology Peter Badertscher said. “Also, with PARCC, it’s highly unsecure as far as a network structure. The PARCC rules actually don’t allow us to run malware and virus protection programs during the testing. Any popups could kill a kid’s session.”

Having so many students using so many computers could pose problems for districts in terms of their electronic infrastructure. Districts in low-bandwidth areas of the state may not be able to support so much information going through their modems.

“I think it could be difficult for districts lacking the technology resources to administer these assessments,” Allen East 7-12 principal Keith Baumgartner said.

“We’re in a good position here, especially with our new elementary school,” Bath superintendent Dave Lewellen said. “However, I am very concerned with other schools in the state, especially ones whose infrastructure simply may not support this type of testing.”

To make things worse, no additional funding or resources have been allocated from the state up to this point to help districts accommodate these new requirements.

“We don’t get money in any way for this,” Badertscher said.

“It’s always tough when you’re talking about money and having enough to purchase the number of devices that we’ll need,” Straub said. “It seems like an unfunded mandate.”

There is hope, however, that these field tests could lead to positive changes for these new assessments.

“Why don’t they just release the test for one grade this year and just add a grade every year after?” Diglia said. “That way, it wouldn’t be all at once and we could get some experience with this under our belts.”

“When you’re testing a Web interface on such a broad level, it’s a major undertaking, so we’re trying to cooperate as much as we can,” Badertscher said. “The hope is that we can come up with something in the middle that allows us to maintain some security on our end while maintaining security across the rest of the network.”

No matter what, if any, changes are made, one area educator continues to have misgivings over this increased emphasis on testing and evaluation.

“I am concerned that our focus has become more on testing and less on learning,” Brinkman said.

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