New Jersey's Department of Education held a web-based seminar at the end of January so that school administrators could find out more about computer-based testing in school year 2014-2015. John Mooney reports in NJ Spotlight that while state officials express optimism about this schedule, many of those who will be responsible for carrying out the testing used the webinar to express serious concerns about the plan.
Several transitions are all going on at once in New Jersey's public education system, and administrators believe that it may not be possible to blend them smoothly. Like many states, New Jersey is trying to adapt to the Common Core curriculum plans so that its standards are the same as other states'. Any changes that have been made will take several years to judge, the administrators point out. In addition, there are concurrent reforms in how the state's teachers are evaluated. Student test scores may become more important in rating their teachers, at the same time that curriculum has changed.
Schools everywhere are scrambling to keep up with technology. Some schools, which had already invested in computers, will need to upgrade many pieces of equipment. It's not clear that even technology-savvy schools will have enough computers to manage student testing.
"We are certainly not up to the technology needed right now, and we have only two years before we need to be," said Teresa Rafferty, interim superintendent in Piscataway, who said the requirements in her district alone will take $1.6 million investment up front.
About one-third of those costs will go to upgrading computers to meet operating system requirements. The rest is needed to ensure that enough computers will be available to test a single grade over the course of a day, perhaps by staggering morning and afternoon sessions.
The testing, too, is new. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is getting ready to do an early pilot study of the testing it's now developing. This testing will be done entirely on laptops or tablets, and the state plans to have all schools using PARCC's tests in two years. PARCC issued guidelines on what the equipment specifications will be, so schools can start looking at whether they have what they will need.
New Jersey's Department of Education doesn't believe that the tech requirements will be a barrier, since schools have been trying to include smarter technology already.
"The specifications [for the new testing] seem pretty low compared to what districts are doing anyway," said Bari Erlichson, the state's assistant commissioner, who is overseeing the effort and has been traveling the state to pitch its merits.
"These kind of devices should already be part of their instructional technology," she said in an interview. "They should be using these devices in the daily learning."
But administrators point out that having some high-tech devices is not as daunting as having enough to test entire grades. The testing will stretch from elementary school, through middle and high school. Since all students must be tested in the same time frame, schools will be challenged to fit their limited resources to the sheer numbers.
"We are unclear at this time about the specifications and requirements of the testing environments and timelines. For example, how many students must have computer access simultaneously? What will be the testing window — how long do we have to test our students in a given grade?," wrote Christopher Manno, superintendent in Burlington Township.
The state believes that as PARCC's pilot program moves forward this spring, many questions will be answered. As schools continue to invest in tablets like the iPad, they will build up equipment that can be used when testing is mandatory. "Today is a different story than what it will be when we field this in 2015," said Erlichson.