School chief offers online testing advice

Burlington serves as a case study for rest of state

When the Burlington schools were randomly selected to administer a paper and pencil version of the state’s new online standardized test, Superintendent Eric Conti had a better idea. He suggested to Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester that Burlington serve as a case study to show what it takes for an entire school district to double down to take the test online.

After a significant outlay on technology, Burlington is now an outlier in Massachusetts; nearly every student has access to a computer during the school day. In taking the new standardized test, about 2,200 students will use several types of computers and schools will stream the test at different network speeds, so that educators in the Bay State and the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) consortium can get a better sense how the test should be administered.

Conti came to the Burlington schools in 2008, from the Culpeper County, Virginia, Public Schools where he was an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

–GABRIELLE GURLEY

CommonWealth: Why did you decide to volunteer Burlington for a PARCC case study?

CONTI: We are trying to do a full district trial of what the PARCC would look like in the future. Massachusetts leads the nation in terms of international standardized test scores, if that’s how you want to measure student progress, but Massachusetts has no history of administering a computer-based online test statewide. I’d worked in Virginia prior to coming to Massachusetts. Virginia implemented online tests years ago [in 2001]. A lot of the issues that we bumped into there were not only content-driven and curricular-driven but were logistically-driven. So I wrote to the commissioner and said I wouldn’t mind being a case study, so that we can make some actual recommendations to folks who have to make some decisions pretty quickly.

Most superintendents are working 18 months in the future. So, if a superintendent asks, do I buy tablets or do I buy Chromebooks and, if the PARCC is one of the motivating factors for doing it, we can say, our kids took it on both and this is what we can say: They hated taking it on a tablet or they loved it.

CW: How did the Burlington school system build its computer network?

CONTI: We are lucky in Burlington that there is a real history and culture of collaborating across general government and the school department. We felt like we could create a much more robust, higher functioning, shared [computer] network if we all worked together. In 2010, Town Meeting approved a nearly $1.5 million, five-year [infrastructure] project. There are about 16 town [network] locations and six school locations. It’s like we’re all on the same power grid. Everyone has outlets, but we were at the point that everyone’s electrical system was a little bit different, so we all came together.

CW: How much was invested on the school side?

CONTI: It was probably roughly half. We really wanted to get out of the bulimic technology purchases of the past where we spent $1 million and then nothing for 10 years. Everything ages out so quickly and things are changing so fast that we wanted the network infrastructure to always be up-to-date, so that no matter what anyone wants to hang on the top of it, at a school, at the town engineering department, or the assessor’s office, the network would be capable of handling that.

CW: What type of network does Burlington have?

CONTI: All of our buildings are connected with fiber.

CW: Why is Burlington using different types of computers?

CONTI: It’s what we have. We are not trying to do anything special for PARCC, because I think that’s the wrong reason for incorporating technology. You need to integrate technology into your instruction because it’s 2014 and that’s the direction we are going in anyway.

We are essentially a 1:1 district with iPads. [Student have access to an iPad during the school day]. We also have computer labs, so we have desktops at all schools. And then we use a lot of Chromebooks, which are relatively inexpensive laptops that function in the cloud.

CW: What’s your advice to administrators who are planning to use PARCC to guide their computer purchasing decisions?

CONTI: I can’t make that recommendation until our kids actually experience the test on the devices. But you don’t want to buy a device that’s only available for the test and then sits in the closet all the time. If the kids are going to be using the device all year, you want them to be using the same device when they are [taking the test].

CW: You’re all set online with devices and infrastructure: how do you think your students will perform on the test itself?

CONTI: [Chuckles] I am not correlating our PARCC readiness to performance. Some of those districts will probably outperform us on the assessment itself. There’s two very different outcomes: we have the devices, but are our kids actually going to do well on PARCC?

We invested in devices that we could use for whatever test the state [education] board chooses. The reality is that, even if they don’t choose PARCC, they are, more than likely, going to have to change MCAS to some online assessment. And, even as ready as we were, we ran into extra expenses that we did not count on.

CW: Such as?

CONTI: We provided kids with tablets, iPads. Our kids don’t use keyboards. If you watch our kids, a lot of them love typing on the device itself. We have some keyboards available, but when we provide a student with a tablet, we don’t buy a keyboard. PARCC requires an external keyboard because of some of the formatting of the test. They also mentioned that it’s easier to type on a keyboard. I think that’s kind of a bogus reason. That’s an adult reason, not a kid reason. I would imagine that most of the kids are going to push the keyboard to the side and type on the device anyway. But we are going to ask them afterwards, and they might say the keyboard was necessary.

What do keyboards run, like $40 a piece? That’s expensive. Also, the devices have to be in what’s called single app mode. That’s another PARCC requirement. You need some sort of MDM, mobile device management tool, so basically nothing else on the iPad can work except a link to PARCC. They don’t want kids Googling or anything else. We’ve had to invest in some headphones. That’s about $20,000 to 30,000 in extra expenses to date.

CW: Many school officials are concerned about the cost of keeping up with technology changes.

CONTI: I hear all the time that Burlington has money. I appreciate that, but that’s not the sole reason. We re-allocated funding and stopped purchasing other things. We reduced some positions in our language lab at the high school, a hugely expensive teaching space that can run anywhere from $80,000 to $150,000. We didn’t replace it because, with our kids having iPads, now every classroom becomes a language lab. Not only that, but we had a teaching assistant whose sole job was to manage the language lab. We no longer have that position. So if people say, Oh, I want to have a language lab and have these devices, that’s where I think people get into trouble.

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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.

We don’t do any large textbook adoptions at the high school anymore. If you want a new world geography text, what we are going to say is that there’s enough open education resources out there.

About 25 percent of what you are purchasing should be dedicated to professional development to use whatever you’re buying. Over time the costs will come down, but I think people have to stop buying what they’ve always bought traditionally. People have to change their purchasing habits, and if PARCC is a lever to do that, then that’s OK.