Can Bay State schools afford online standardized testing?

Tech deficit is $75M

this spring, there’s a twist to the annual ritual of standardized testing. Many students will trade in pencil and paper and move into the 21st century, taking the state’s new standardized test on computers.

But there are plenty of school district officials who know they are not as ready for the digital world of the 21st century as they should be. In an ongoing survey of schools, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education estimates that about 70 percent may need computer and other device upgrades to meet the recommended technology guidelines for the test. Just to get some schools up to speed on network upgrades alone may cost about $75 million.

Melrose, for example, spent $40,000 last year just on computer hardware in the district. But the cost of adding the necessary bandwidth to have students take a test online while other classes and offices continue to use the Internet could run as high as $30,000. “There is no way Melrose can afford this,” says Cyndy Taymore, the Melrose superintendent.

Statewide, nearly 80,000 students at about 1,000 schools are taking a pilot version of the exam. About 700 schools are expected to take the test online; the remaining schools will use traditional pencil and paper. The new test is designed to assess the Common Core K-12 national English and math standards that the Bay State adopted in 2010. If all goes well over the next two years, all students could start taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, or PARCC, in 2016.

“The skepticism that you are hearing from superintendents is largely around funding and readiness. We are going to help them get there,” says state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester. “My goal is that, in the Commonwealth, we have 21st century classrooms so students and teachers are able to access the world digitally.”

For most school officials, the new online standardized test is the major factor forcing them to come to grips with their deficits in technology and the money to close the gaps. Young people are digital natives; smartphones, tablets and laptops, and other electronic devices are tools that they’ve come to rely on. But many schools are struggling to come up with the funds to create classroom environments that have high-speed, wireless Internet access and enough computers, preferably mobile ones such as tablets, for each student.

Superintendents, who are already at work on their fiscal 2015 budgets, argue that there’s a small window of time to gear up from pilot tests this year to having all their technology needs in place for the real thing.

“That is a pretty significant leap in what is essentially an 18-month period,” says Thomas Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Burlington is the only school district in Massachusetts and possibly the country where every student who is taking the pilot test is using some type of computer, according to a spokesman for the coalition of states coordinating test efforts nationally. Burlington spent $1.5 million in 2010 to upgrade its Internet infrastructure for all of its municipal departments; roughly half of that money went to school networks.

Most school districts don’t have that kind of money. “I estimate that we need to find $200,000 to upgrade our computer inventory, so that we can test kids in a reasonable amount of time in a reasonably efficient way,” says Jay Barry, superintendent of the Southwick-Tolland-Granville school district. “That’s a lot of money for us,” he adds, noting the district usually budgets up to $80,000 for its technology needs.

Other western Massachusetts schools are literally not up to speed. Students in the Chesterfield and Goshen regional school district, a part of the Hampshire Regional School Districts, access the Internet using DSL, an antique technology by today’s high-speed standards.

Increasing bandwidth—wiring all schools to provide enough capacity to transfer data at sufficient speeds to allow large numbers of students to take the test online simultaneously—is a major challenge for many schools. Parts of western Massachusetts are still waiting for super-fast connections.

Kim Florek, the technology director for the Chesterfield and Goshen district, says many of her schools rely on free cable Internet access now. She fears the schools won’t be able to afford the faster Internet service when it is finally available in the area.

At press time, state lawmakers were considering an amendment to the $1 billion technology bond bill that would establish a $38 million grant program to help schools that do not meet the new test’s network guidelines. Federal matching funds are also available for those upgrades, but municipalities also may have to chip in some funds.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

As for computers and other equipment, state education officials have advised districts to look into statewide school purchasing contracts and other programs.

Rep. Paul Heroux, an Attleboro Democrat who proposed the bond bill amendment, says that districts have some difficult decisions to make. “If the school districts and municipalities want to spend money on computers, laptops, and tablets for the PARCC tests, they have the money,” he says. “They are just going to have to make sacrifices somewhere else.”