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Common Core Readiness Check: What Schools Have Done or Are Doing

Educators and IT leaders share early successes and stumbling blocks in their Common Core and online testing preparation efforts.

The Hamblen County (Tenn.) Department of Education is nearly ready for the online standardized testing that will become mandatory during the 2014–2015 school year. As teachers work this year to integrate the new Common Core State Standards into the curriculum, HCDOE's IT department is putting the final touches on network upgrades that will provide all 18 schools with ample bandwidth to handle the transition.

75% of surveyed districts will administer Common Core–mandated online assessments in computer labs.

Now, the county is focused on having enough ­computers to test students. IT personnel purchased more than a thousand new notebook computers in September and plan to add more next year. Such investments prepare county schools for the Common Core requirements, but there are other advantages, says Dr. Dale Lynch, HCDOE's director of schools.

"We know that we have to get ready for the online assessments, and we have a year to make it happen," Lynch explains. "But we're not ­purchasing devices or improving our infrastructure just for the online ­assessments. We want to make sure ­students have an opportunity to use technology on a daily basis."

In spring 2015, the 45 states that have fully adopted the Common Core standards for English language arts and mathematics must administer a mandatory online assessment that will test student proficiency in those subjects. The tougher standards — which encourage critical thinking, collaboration, technology use and a deeper dive into the concepts that students are learning — are designed to ensure that students are ­prepared for the workforce or college when they graduate.

Two state-led consortia are developing online standardized tests from which states can choose: The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) offers a fixed-form test; the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a computerized adaptive one. Both go beyond traditional paper-and-pencil multiple-choice tests by challenging students to answer more in-depth questions or multistep problems that require analytical and research skills and real-world problem solving. Proponents say the end-of-year tests, which will deliver students' scores in weeks instead of months, will better assess their college and career readiness.

"The Common Core standards encourage higher-level thinking on the student's part," says John H. Coleman, director of curriculum at Toms River Regional Schools in New Jersey. "The sample questions I am seeing ask students to read passages, develop a hypothesis and then ­support it. This will deepen students' understanding and make them more effective learners. It's a major shift that will pay dividends down the road."

Online Tests Mean It's Time to Say Goodbye to the No. 2 Pencil

Ongoing preparations for Common Core compliance require IT leaders and educators to boost their networks, acquire more computers, train teachers to align their curriculum to the standards, and prepare students for the new tests. For most of them (according to CDW•G's spring 2013 survey of nearly 300 public school district IT professionals in states that have embraced Common Core), meeting the new standards' technology requirements is a top priority. Three in 10 survey respondents, in fact, called it their highest priority.

Some districts have already put in the hard work of overhauling their networks to support online testing. HCDOE, for example, has spent the past three years updating its aging network. After ­standardizing on HP switches, IT staff have increased core network speeds from 1 gigabit per second to 10Gbps, says Supervisor of Technology and Communications Harold Jones.

The county used E-Rate funding, Race to the Top grants and HCDOE funds to purchase the new networking equipment, which will be fully deployed by year's end. The IT department also boosted Internet speeds in its four middle schools from T1 lines to 1Gbps fiber links. Both high schools already had 1Gbps fiber links.

The infrastructure, Lynch continues, "is PARCC-ready."

78% of surveyed school districts plan to test students in shifts.

20% expect to test all students simultaneously.The remaining respondents are still undecided.

SOURCE: CDW•G's 2013 Common Core Tech report (CDWG.com/CommonCoreTech)

The county's wireless network, meanwhile, continues to evolve. Two years ago, HCDOE ­standardized on Aruba Networks 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi equipment, installing eight to 16 access points at each school. But Jones hopes to double the number of APs in each school by the time students begin taking the Common Core–mandated online assessments 18 months from now.

Determining which type of device would be best suited to online assessments also was a priority. HCDOE officials considered tablets, but they chose to standardize on notebook computers. "We believe it will be better for our students to take the tests on devices that have full, integrated keyboards. Plus, the prospect of full-classroom integration will be greater with notebooks," Lynch says.

After buying 1,015 notebooks in September, HCDOE now has a two-to-one student-to-computer ratio. Lynch believes the county needs to buy another 1,000 notebooks next year to have enough computers for online testing.

"It's going to be challenging to get the number of devices we need, but we believe it's doable. We're halfway there," he says.

Early Adopters Get Ahead of Common Core

HCDOE's efforts are a work in progress, but for Greenwood Community Schools, the work is done.

The six-school district in Greenwood, Ind., became Common Core–ready last year after upgrading its network to support Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress Plus — the state's online standardized testing program. District officials implemented ISTEP+ for third- through eighth-grade students in phases, beginning with two grades in 2010, continuing with two more grades in 2011 and concluding with the last two grades in 2012. The district also administers state-mandated end-of-course online tests for high school math and English classes.

Rebecca Rinehart and her team began preparing Greenwood Community Schools' network for online testing in 2010. "In three years, we tripled the number of students doing online testing in the same two-week window," she says.

Chris Bucher

"In three years, we tripled the number of students doing online testing in the same two-week window," recalls Director of Technology Rebecca Rinehart.

Fearful that the network with decade-old switches would become overtaxed during testing, Rinehart and her staff installed new Cisco Catalyst 3750 Series switches in summer 2012. The equipment, purchased through a three-year lease, increased network capacity from 10/100 megabits per second to 1Gbps. To date, IT staff have upgraded the middle and high school. Two elementary schools will transition to the new switches this year, and the remaining two elementary schools will follow in the near future.

Existing and ad hoc wired computer labs currently are used for testing. Although the district has installed a Cisco Aironet 802.11n network, Rinehart opted not to use Wi-Fi for high-stakes testing to eliminate any extra downtime risks.

Despite Rinehart's preparations and precautions, she's learned that technical glitches can still derail online assessments. The Indiana State Department of Education uses a third-party vendor to administer its standardized assessment, but this past spring, the ­vendor's computer system crashed for two consecutive days as students tried to take the ISTEP+ test. According to published reports, the vendor was administering online assessments in Oklahoma at the same time, and the huge number of test-takers overloaded its servers.

"It had nothing to do with the schools or our state Department of Education. It was the vendor," Rinehart says. "We were prepared, but we still dealt with the ­ultimate in technical snafus."

Indiana's governor and superintendent of public instruction are reconsidering the state's 2010 decision to standardize on Common Core. But regardless of the outcome, Rinehart is working on the assumption that the district will move forward with Common Core and the associated PARCC test. "Upgrading our network makes us feel much more prepared for any online testing that we will be required to administer," she says.

Planning a Common Core Test Run

Next spring, PARCC will pilot its test with more than 1 million students in the 18 states (and District of Columbia) that have signed on to use its online assessment.

Hamblen County and Toms River Regional Schools are among the districts that will participate in the pilot. While students will take only one portion of the test, it will allow district and IT leaders to gauge the readiness of their infrastructure and allow students to get used to online testing and the test itself, says Linda Sorrentino, Toms River's district supervisor of technology.

According to Sorrentino, the Toms River IT department has spent the past two years replacing an aging network with new Cisco equipment that will increase its network backbone speeds from 100Mbps to 1Gbps. The district plans to rotate students through computer labs to take the test, she says, and will look to pilot ­outcomes to figure out scheduling going forward.

"Can our computers and infrastructure handle it? Can our students be successful in this environment?" Sorrentino asks. "The pilot will give us a better sense
of how we're doing."

Readying Students for Online Testing

School districts are providing teachers with professional development to align their instruction with Common Core standards. But students also will need training to complete the mandatory online assessments that Common Core requires.

At Tennessee's Hamblen County Department of Education, instructors have begun teaching ­keyboarding skills to K–2 students. That way, when those students reach third grade, they will be technologically equipped to take the online tests, says Dr. Dale Lynch, director of schools.

Developing students' comfort level with computer-based testing also is important, adds Rebecca Rinehart, director of technology for Greenwood Community Schools in Indiana. One way to do that, she says, is to conduct practice tests.

Equally important is helping students develop their critical thinking skills, which the Common Core assessments will test.

Students in Wyoming already complete online assessments, in the form of a computer-adaptive test. According to Scott James, director of instruction and assessment for Platte County School District No. 1, one question asks students to read a passage and place commas where appropriate. But educators noticed that some freshman students were prone to dropping commas because the test gave them an unlimited supply. "Students should be able to determine where and how many commas are needed," James explains. "One of the skillsets we will have to develop is that decision-making capacity. Does the child really know where commas go? With these next-generation assessments, we will be able to discern more about students' capabilities. They should not be trying to simply out-guess the test."

Patrick Murphy-Racey
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Oct 23 2013 Spice IT

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