In the Rush to Buy New Tech for Common Core, What Happens to the Big Picture?

| December 3, 2013 | 9 Comments
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Who’s ready for the Common Core? Many schools and districts are re-assessing what they need to do, and how much they will need to spend, to comply with the new standards. A recent report put out by the Pioneer Institute estimates that “cost of transition” to the Common Core for school districts will be approximately $16 billion over seven years.

One of the biggest expenses appears to be the technology required for Common Core-aligned testing. Both of the approved assessments, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC), are computer-adaptive and need to be taken on digital devices.

Districts are scrambling to figure out how to improve, update, and add technology so students can actually take the new tests. Murfreesboro public schools in Tennessee, for example, borrowed $5.2 million to purchase laptops and iPads to prepare students for the new assessments.

“Many districts have deployed literally thousands of devices and have not adequately considered sustainability, support or refresh of these devices.”

Steve Carr, CETPA board member and Chief Technology Officer for the Ventura County Department of Education, said that the passage of AB 484, which suspended California’s old tests and funded the implementation of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, has put districts on the fast track to meeting the new requirements. He’s concerned, however, that many districts haven’t provided the infrastructure, connectivity, and management to help support the expansive new testing. “We are facing such a quick proliferation of technology tied with assessment and its infusion into Common Core instruction,” he said. “Many districts have deployed literally thousands of devices and have not adequately considered sustainability, support or refresh of these devices.”

In addition to providing adequate wifi and enough computers, Carr worries that many districts may not yet have a big-picture plan — beginning with how to spend the new money, to how they’re going to give all the tests. “I am concerned that there has not been enough planning, piloting and inclusion of all parties, from curriculum to facilities to technology to personnel, in order to have a fully vetted plan for the use of the monies,” he said. “Another big concern is that SBAC will be able to truly deliver assessments to all of the 618,000 California students in a twelve-week window.”

TRY BEFORE YOU BUY

A few weeks ago, the Windsor Unified School District in Sonoma County, Calif., sponsored a “try before you buy” event for teachers to get their hands on different tech devices, meant to raise awareness for the Smarter Balanced Assessments, according to high school English teacher Catlin Tucker, who also authored Blended Learning for Grades 4-12: Leveraging the Power of Technology to Create a Student-Centered Classroom. While it’s great to get teachers trying the hardware, she sometimes gets frustrated that the emphasis of buying up new technology with Common Core money is so focused on the test. “Everything in this conversation is being tied to the assessment, I find that so frustrating,” she said. “I wish the focus was on how transformative these devices could be, and how they could meet the Smarter Balanced Assessment.”

Tucker currently has no in-class technology for students to use besides her own district-provided, repurposed Mac, so her students bring their own devices, and Tucker, who’s a Google-certified teacher, employs her Google training to make the students’ iTouches, iPhones and various tablets and readers seamless learning tools for class. But if the district is going to buy laptops or tablets for classrooms, she wants to be consulted, because Tucker believes there are distinct advantages of some over others.

For example, she wonders if district leaders are aware that the Nexus tablet is more compatible (not to mention more affordable) than the iPad with Google Drive and Google Apps, which many teachers already use.

Ideally, Tucker said, technology for learning can only be transformative if teachers are willing to embrace it — and that requires teacher input on what to buy, and high-quality professional development to support teachers in how to use devices. She hopes that administrators will listen to teachers’ needs, like her district is doing with the “try before you buy,” initiative and not just focus on assessments.

“I think it will be interesting to see what teacher feedback is, compared to what is purchased,” she said.

MORE THAN TESTING

When buying digital hardware for a school system, says Andrew Marcinek, technical director for the Groton-Dunstable, Massachusetts, public schools, it’s imperative to consider more than just testing. Shortly after taking the job as lead technologist for the district, Marcinek received a $562,000 windfall from the town council to spend on updating technology for the whole district (Superintendent Anthony Bent said he was unaware of any money coming from the state for Common Core technology upgrades).

Marcinek decided to look at the overall needs of the district, both for learning and for upcoming assessments, and make a plan. He began by collecting input from teachers, administrators, and parents: “Every stakeholder gave input, and then I used their information to determine that the Chromebook was the best solution for the primary student machine,” he said. And while the Chromebooks will be used when Massachusetts is slated to pilot PARCC testing in 2014-2015, Marcinek said, “The test is a small fraction of how it’s [updated technology] going to be used. Ninety percent of use is in the classroom.”

“Everything in this conversation is being tied to the assessment, I find that so frustrating.”

After spending some of the money making sure that every school building was equipped with wifi, Marcinek purchased 600 Samsung Chromebooks as well as 100 iPads for elementary use. When buying technology for an entire district, he said, cost is important, but so is sustainability, and attention to detail. For example, he learned the PARCC assessment can be taken on an iPad, but not without a keyboard attachment, for a total cost of $400, making it double the price of the Chromebook. “So we get two Chromebooks for every iPad,” he said, “Plus, Google management is so much easier for tech administrators to use when you don’t have an influx of cash for one-to-one.” Many of his teachers already used Google Apps and Google Drive, and the single sign-on aspect of using an iPad can make sharing frustrating.

But making the transition from paper to computer exams comes with more challenges than whether to buy iPads or Chromebooks. Some teachers are worried that their schools can’t handle the massive change over to the Common Core requirements, considering they haven’t solved current problems with computer-based standardized tests. Nashville high school English teacher Susan Norwood said that, while she is unsure of any new technology coming to her school because of upcoming Common Core assessments, she called the Discovery Education Assessment (DEA) — the current computer-based standardized tests at her school “a fiasco.”

“Students were sitting right next to each other in the library and could easily look at each other’s computer screens,” she said. “It was impossible to monitor and keep everyone quiet. There were two classes taking the test at the same time — close to 80 students. Meanwhile, adults and students were entering the library and having conversations and walking around. It was so noisy, that I doubt I would have passed the test.”

The school’s solution to the computer testing dilemma? For the upcoming DEA to be given in a few weeks, Norwood’s classes have been instructed to take the assessment on paper in their classroom. “Then, they will go to the library to put in the answers on computers,” she said. “I hope they copy their answers correctly.”

But bringing technology into classrooms is inevitable, and schools will need to catch up. Perhaps getting ready for the Common Core assessments is a way to force schools into the future. “The reality is that technology has been a part of the curriculum for several years. Schools are already highly invested, and many actually do not have to make large purchases [for Common Core] because they already have the technology,” said Andrea Bennett, the Executive Director at California Educational Technology Professionals Association.

“I will also add that we need to stop thinking of technology as something new and special when it comes to education. It is an essential part of the learning environment along with electricity and heat and textbooks,” she said. “Technology won’t improve learning outcomes. Good teaching will.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post included the wrong total price of the iPad and keyboard. The current version reflects the correct price.

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