CLEARWATER - Florida education leaders have championed the new set of standards that will be applied to schools across the nation during the 2014-2015 school year but are still wondering how to tackle the challenge of stepping up classroom technology to meet the rapidly approaching deadline.
Florida's goal is to have all high-stakes testing online by the 2014-2015 school year, when the new Common Core standards, which emphasize more reading and writing in every subject, are scheduled to replace the current Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test with a more text-heavy standardized test called the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College Career test, or PARCC.
Across the state, though, many school districts are still struggling to meet the technological demands of the switch to computerized testing.
The state Department of Education's readiness gauge shows that no school districts have achieved all 12 technological and educational requirements to implement the Common Core curriculum, such as having expanded Internet capabilities, one computer for every two students and policies allowing students to bring their own computers or electronic devices to class. Pinellas County has met the requirements for high-speed wireless connectivity and policies allowing students to bring their own electronic devices to school but still needs to increase bandwidth in schools, purchase more computers, fix technical issues with computers and find ways to provide students with Internet access at home, according to the DOE.
This year about 160 students whose parents are non-English speakers received laptops from the Pinellas County school district, but ensuring every student has access to technology to practice for tests and complete assignments will be problematic, said Superintendent Michael Grego.
"We're still in the earlier stages with a lot of unknowns," Grego said. "We have to figure out how to expose the students during the day so the first time they're sitting in front of a computer monitor isn't when they're taking the PARCC assessment."
Hillsborough County's technology already meets Common Core standards, but the school district still has to develop "bring your own device" policies, meet the requirements for high-speed wireless connectivity, increase bandwidth in schools, purchase more computers and expand Internet access to students at home.
It could cost the school district nearly $7 million to provide schools with wireless capabilities and another $7-15 million to buy more than 3,600 computers for elementary schools, 4,800 for middle schools and 5,200 for high schools, according to Hillsborough school officials.
Many schools can start getting necessary equipment installed this summer, and the first month of next school year will be spent testing every Florida school for bandwidth capability to get a clear picture of which areas need help, said Florida Deputy Commissioner for Innovation Ron Nieto.
The 22-state consortium developing the PARCC test is considering adding a paper-and-pencil option as more states struggle to get the funding and technical support necessary to offer completely online tests, and Florida may want to consider doing the same, said Walter Sherwood, president of state services with Pearson, the educational curriculum company that creates curriculum materials for Florida and runs FCAT testing.
"You can't flip the switch and expect to move from paper based to fully online in the course of a year and have a good experience, in my opinion," Sherwood said.
There are several benefits to giving tests online, such as having scores within 24 hours, Sherwood said.
State leaders, though, are worried about the ability of Pearson or another company to handle the volume of data that would be produced with every Florida student taking a computerized test.
In Florida, high-stakes tests are given at the same time on the same day, and that could cause backlogs in the company's servers and take much longer to administer, said state education Commissioner Tony Bennett. The PARCC is already supposed to take more time to administer than the FCAT.
"If you don't have a full 1-to-1 computer capacity in your districts for a test that is maybe twice what we're currently giving in terms of time ... I'm thinking how much time do we loose in the classroom?," Bennett said.
Any technological failures in the administration of the tests could spark an "outcry" to invalidate the results, especially considering that high-stakes test scores are factored into school grades and teacher salaries, Bennett said. "The stakes are too high."
Caveon Test Security, one of the largest test security firms in the nation, is currently working with Florida's Department of Education to develop safety nets for the online tests, which, if administered correctly, could be "much more secure then pencil-and-paper methods," said company co-founder John Fremer.
Computer tests allow you to flag potential cheaters much easier than paper tests do, Fremer said. You can track the number of changes a student makes to an answer, such as whether the student is always changing from the wrong answer to the right answer. The analysis possible with a computerized test also raises red flags based on how long it takes students to go through each question, such as going through a complicated question too quickly or taking too long on an easy question.
As with any test, computer or paper, the biggest concern will always be staying a step ahead of the test-takers, Fremer said. It's a problem that no amount of technology, security or planning will ever eliminate.
"Kids are still going to find more ways to cheat once they get the hang of what this online testing is all about," Fremer said.