Assessment | Feature

4 Concerns — and Solutions — About Online Testing

Online Common Core assessments will be required in most schools in the United States in 2015. Many teachers are enjoying facets of the standards, but educators and other stakeholders have raised concerns about the requirement for online assessments.

Below are four of the top concerns people have about online testing — and suggestions for addressing them.

1. Our Network Can't Handle It.
EducationSuperhighway, a nonprofit organization that supports schools in upgrading their networks, estimates that 61 percent of schools in the United States don't meet the 50 Kbps per student threshold recommended by the assessment consortia to ensure that schools can fully implement the Common Core tests. EducationSuperHighway (along with SEDTA and other organizations) recommend 100 Mbps per thousand students or staff as a baseline for schools adopting digital learning. The non-profit estimates that 72 percent of schools do not currently meet this threshold.

EducationSuperhighway has made the news recently because of a $9 million dollar donation from Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. If your network isn't up to par and you are looking for lower-cost ways to upgrade, check their program page for ways to partner with them.

Merit Software's Ben Weintraub said he has seen schools where the network is the problem. Wireless networks, he says, are popular, but they may not be able to handle the traffic necessary for the Common Core assessments. "Sometimes it's as simple as asking the school to put a direct access point in a room" to improve network speeds and reliability. Each school will need to assess their technology needs and see what upgrades they will need to make to hit the speed benchmarks they need to.

2. Our Computers Can't Handle It.
If schools do not have newer hardware — and enough of it to ensure timely testing — they may not be equipped to offer computer-based high-stakes testing. Weintraub also said he has seen the vast disparity in the number and types of computers in different regions of the country as his company has rolled out and supported their online interactive learning software.

Plenty of schools who have chosen their product are working great, but there are some that Weintraub said he just doesn't see being successful with the Common Core testing unless they make huge investments. One school he discussed has a lab of computers running Windows XP and they complained about lag and slowness with the product. In their technology requirements document, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of the groups developing the tests, suggests that schools upgrade to Windows 7 rather than using Windows XP, mainly because Microsoft is sunsetting support for that OS this year.

"It's going to be a complicated issue," Weintraub said, and "how they are going to get the money" is one of the chief concerns for school districts that have outdated machines and software.

3. Our Teachers Can't Handle It.
If you're concerned that your teachers will need a lot of professional development to get up to speed on the online testing system, you're probably right. But they may be more motivated to complete that training and begin using the technology tools than you might think.

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews — long against the Common Core — recently said the teachers he has spoken to are excited about the new standards.

One important element of your professional development should be to empower teachers to solve simple technology problems themselves. Weintraub suggested "training teachers that it's okay to clear the cache in the browser" or perform other common troubleshooting tasks. Their quick action could be invaluable if there are problems during the test.

4. Our Kids Can't Handle It.
This is one of the more insistent — and harder to solve — problems educators and parents find with the idea of online testing.

First, there is the disparity in home computer access that leads to differences in students' comfort using technology. Schools can help address this by integrating computers into daily class activities, which is called for in the Common Core standards, but there may need to be specific focus on basic keyboarding skills and computer usage in addition to the standards.

Then there is the emotional aspect of high-stakes testing, which can be amplified by technological problems. Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, said he is concerned that technological issues during the test, such as losing answers or the entire test, "can undermine overall performance," especially if students have to start over. Schaeffer's organization is against high-stakes standardized testing in general, but they are particularly concerned about the quick shift of those tests to a computer-based system and the effects that can have on kids if it is botched. This is where teachers who are prepared to step in and quickly solve problems are particularly important. If they can keep kids from getting frustrated, they can help them succeed on the tests.

As the deadline to begin using online Common Core assessments approaches, these concerns will likely be voiced more often and at a higher volume. Your key to answering them is preparation. Look at what you need to do to achieve the technology, professional development, and student preparation benchmarks, then see what it will take to do it. See if you can partner with other schools in your state to share ideas and provide training.

Finally, if you really don't think your school will be ready, some states are allowing schools to opt out of the first few years of online testing. Check with your state's education standards department to find out the procedures for requesting a waiver.

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to correct a factual error. We previously reported that EducationSuperhighway estimates that 80 percent of schools fail to meet bandwidth recommendations for Common Core tests. That has been fixed in the first paragraph in the section labeled "1. Our Network Can't Handle It." Also, to clarify, bandwidth recommendations are not requirements for Common Core testing but are practical recommendations. Last updated Jan. 23 at 12:34 p.m. Pacific. —D.N.


About the Author

Jennifer Roland is a freelance writer in Oregon. She focuses on e dtech, lifestyle topics, marketing and public relations, and business writing. Her first book, The Best of Learning & Leading with Technology, was published by ISTE in July 2009.