Valley school districts are buying up laptops and tablets by the thousands to administer new computerized state tests this spring, but officials say they're still working through snags like slow Internet connections and training students to type on keyboards.
Districts are scrambling to get ready for the assessments, which are based on the new, more rigorous Common Core math and English standards. Gone are the days of the STAR standardized assessment — that pencil-and-paper test was scrapped by lawmakers last summer. The new version — which tests students in grades three through eight and grade 11 — is done on the computer.
The online math and English tests, called the Smarter Balanced Consortium Field Tests, will be run on a trial basis this year. A complete rollout of the test will come next spring.
The state already has doled out about $1.25 billion to help schools train teachers in the new Common Core standards, buy materials and prepare for the tests.
Around the Valley, districts have largely spent their share of the money on computers and the latest tablets. But because there won't be enough devices for each student, they will have to be churned quickly through testing rooms this spring.
"In the past, we've basically tested every student at the same time," said Chris Edmondson, director of educational technology at Clovis Unified. "So the school shuts down for a period of time and every teacher is a proctor. With this, we're not going to be able to do that."
It's difficult to know exactly how well prepared each district will be before test time. The company in charge of writing the exam is surveying districts, asking questions like how many computers and test proctors they have, but those checklists aren't publicly available.
Clovis Unified officials say they recently bought 6,500 Lenovo laptops at about $700 a pop, or about $4.5 million total. The purchase doubles the district's supply of computers and should allow 21,500 Clovis students to take the tests over six weeks, administrators say.
But most of the computers haven't been delivered yet, leaving students with only a few weeks to get used to them before they sit down for testing. Edmondson said most should be in students' hands by March 1.
The district also is hurrying to fix Internet connectivity problems at a few schools. Many have upgraded from dial-up to high-speed Internet, said chief technology officer Dan Resciniti, but a handful still are stuck with outdated systems and slow connections.
Connections at some schools are so sluggish that officials plan to lock down their wireless servers during testing, only opening up the connection to computers being used for exams. That's what those schools did last year, when Clovis participated in an early pilot of this year's test, Resciniti said.
"It is a slower-speed connection, but it's still a connection," he said. "We have strategies to make it successful." Those schools will get bandwidth upgrades by the time the official test comes out next year, he added.
In Fresno, the district's fiber-optic network has some of the most reliable Internet connectivity around — including 3,000 wireless access points and top-notch equipment purchased at discounted rates over the past few years.
The school board recently spent $7.8 million on almost 15,000 Asus tablets, which will be spread across schools during testing. About 32,000 Fresno Unified kids will be tested.
Even so, teachers and administrators say they're dealing with other complications.
Chief technology officer Kurt Madden said students' elementary computer skills — like basic keyboarding — are posing a challenge.
"With the advent of tablets, students are using their thumbs to type," he said. "Their keyboarding skills have gone to the wayside."
Madden noticed the trend during a practice test fourth-graders took in December. Some were "struggling to type four to five sentences using their index fingers," he said.
Since then, some schools have added last-minute keyboarding classes to get kids up to speed. Madden said he has seen "dramatic increases" in students' typing skills since they returned from winter break.
Teachers union leaders say they're still concerned.
"Do we expect it to be disastrous? Yes, we do," said Rhonnie Tinsley, executive director of the Fresno Teachers Association.
Tinsley said she doubts the problems will be confined to the Valley.
"Having massive amounts of students taking tests on computers when they don't have access to computers all day, every day? Herding them into a room to a machine they're not familiar with? I can't imagine it working, and that's bigger than Fresno Unified School District," she said.
Roosevelt High teacher Derek Boucher said teachers haven't heard much about what role they're expected to play. Many parents and teachers still don't know what Common Core is, he added.
"We're told, 'We're building the ship as we go,' " he said.
Sanger Unified officials say they're counting down the weeks until test time by training kids how to take the online tests. The testing company recently released online training materials, said Jon Yost, associate curriculum and instruction superintendent.
"For a student that has an iPad or a tablet at home and they're regularly accessing it, (navigating online is) not a problem," he said. "But many of our students don't have that access."
Sanger recently spent $1.5 million on a bundle of new Apple iPads, laptops and desktop computers. But even so, Yost said, it's been tough to make sure every student gets time to learn how they work.
That's one of the most common challenges across California, state officials say.
"The largest concerns across the board seem to be having adequate technology to handle the new system," said Giorgos Kazanis, spokesman for the California Department of Education. The test this spring is meant to "iron out any kinks," he said, which is part of the reason the state isn't collecting individual student scores this year.
Not every district is worried: Central Unified officials said they already have 4,500 computers on hand to test about 8,264 students.
Assistant Superintendent Ketti Davis said the district didn't buy any new computers for testing, although it soon will purchase several thousand tablets for students to use in class next year.
"We're not scrambling to buy anything, we're not scrambling to put wireless in place," she said.
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