Survey: Massachusetts Schools Not Ready For Online Testing

A recent survey of 1,700 schools by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shows the state is severely lacking in the technology department. Schools do not have enough computers or broadband capability to successfully have all their students taking exams online.

The survey did not suggest how many more technological devices schools are in need of, nor did it include an estimated cost. However, schools are already asking the state for financial assistance.

The new nationally created online exams, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), were tested out this spring in Massachusetts, where 81,000 students in Grades 3-11 took the math or language arts portion online.

The guidelines for the new exams suggest a student-to-computer ratio of 3 to 1, according to James Vaznis for The Boston Globe.

"Superintendents are saying, ‘There's no way we can ramp up to that extent in the next several years,'" said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

While hundreds of schools do have enough computers, many of the devices are outdated and need replacing. Schools that do have Internet access do not have the capacity to allow even one entire classroom online at the same time, let alone an entire school. This becomes a further problem when test questions include a video or audio component.

The Braintree Public Schools discovered these issues this past spring, when they began to test out the online exams. The addition of smartphones became an increasing problem for the school, as students and staff who had them on in other parts of the building during testing were eating up the school's broadband capacity.

"We found out there are a lot more of these things than we thought," Bill Kendall, Braintree's director of math and technology, said of the phones. "We found one access point we thought would have 25 kids taking the exam, but we had 82 kids on it."

The online testing is being tried out in schools for the next two years, and may replace the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) English and math tests in 2016. Each district will decide on its own whether to try out the new testing in the first year of the pilot program, or the second. So far, 57% of the 100 school districts to hand in their answers have opted to try out PARCC next spring, writes Sara Schweiger for The Telegram.

The districts that choose to participate in the program will be "held harmless". That is, student's test results will have no impact on a district's standings.

There is one exception to this, according to Jeanette DeForge for MassLive. All students through the class of 2018 will continue to take the MCAS in math, English, and science in 10th grade, which is a graduation requirement.

This process has some believing those taking tests on a computer, which offers a faster method of essay writing, may give some students an advantage over those taking the same test the old-fashioned way of pencil and paper.

Others believe moving to online testing is a mistake in itself.

"The kids will be traumatized by a user-unfriendly system at a time when they are under a lot of stress," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

Regardless of the state's decision concerning the PARCC testing, Mark Racine, the School Department's chief information officer, believes the technology updates are still worth it.

"We are fully committed to getting wireless access in every classroom and a device into the hands of every student," Racine said. "There is not a single job out there or college course that doesn't require technology. We do feel giving students those tools will give them a leg up in college and their careers.

Boston has set aside $2 million for technology advancements in its schools for next year.

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