Online Testing – The Positive!

There was a lot of negative press and, dare I say, political upheaval about the Common Core and its online testing component during the testing window in May. Now in its aftermath, I think online testing was the story that never happened – despite what some press wanted.

The spotlight was on the tests developed by either the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) in the Common Core states.  Here in California, and particularly the Bay Area where SBAC testing is administered, there was angst among some media and educators about the online testing. A article in a local paper, the East Bay Express, and television coverage on local CBS affiliate KPIX, described a testing “backlash” and technical “glitches.”

While teachers and students may understandably have been stressed and challenged by high-stakes online assessments, there is a different story to be told now as we take a moment after school has ended to look back at the Common Core and the impact of adding online testing.

Common Core Standards now make it easier for software and curriculum developers to meet the needs of a wide array of customers. Software can now combine assessments and real-time data that can deliver continuous, relevant information that is actionable for both teachers and students who can now drive their own learning.

Bill Gates was the keynote speaker at South By Southwest EDU (SXSW EDU) in 2013 and his message was that we are at a tipping point. He referred to the convergence of Common Core, improved instructional software and data systems, and inexpensive hardware as the perfect storm that can transform our schools.

This transformation is currently happening in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Until it received the first round of state one-time funds ($6.9 Million) for Common Core implementation and SBAC readiness almost two years ago, the teaching and learning environment looked much different.

The District never had centrally funded computers for its schools. Principals and school site councils with discretionary funds often had no monies for computers after prioritizing other needs. Some schools had PTAs to fund computer purchases. Before SBAC, the District had a hodgepodge of computers ranging from refurbished desktop computers over 10 years old to newer computers many not set up by the central support staff and therefore very difficult to support.

Access to the internet for the District’s approximately 38,000 students and 4,000 staff members was limited at best before the move to Common Core and SBAC. The internet speed was at 300 megabits per second (Mb/s) for the entire district. Wireless access, much like the state of the computers, was partially deployed and not dense enough to support classrooms of students going online. There was a mix of District installed wireless access points (AP’s) and dozens of rogue AP’s installed by frustrated teachers in a fruitless attempt to get reliable wireless internet.

Software for student learning was at a nascent stage and real-time assessment was non-existent. Eight Oakland schools were fortunate enough to receive a grant from the Rogers Family Foundation for a Blended Learning pilot which proved to be a blueprint for the transformation of OUSD.

Initial funds for Common Core and SBAC Readiness essentially sought to replicate the success that was seen at the eight pilot schools while, at the same time, ensuring all schools were ready for the SBAC testing. The District also allocated Measure J funds (in part passed “to upgrade… computers and technology”) to make substantial infrastructure improvements needed for testing.

From the one-time funds, the District purchased approximately 8,500 Dell Chromebooks distributed across schools according to the number of students required to take the SBAC online tests (Grades 3-8 and 11). The schools liked the Chromebooks so much that principals and teachers used their own budgets, grants, or donations to bring the total to about 12,000 now.

The District network, although still in the upgrade process, is no longer at 300 Mb/s as was the case before SBAC testing, but rather now runs at 10,000 Mb/s or 10 Gigabits per second (Gb/s). Now every classroom in the District, in preparation for online testing, has a new wireless access point capable of allowing all students in a class to be online (over 3300 AP’s deployed in the last year); As a matter of fact, the bandwidth not only enables all students to use state-of-the-art online education technology (edtech) resources, but also would allow them to stream HD videos simultaneously on the Meraki MR34 APs that run 802.11AC, the latest wireless protocol.

Finally, and most importantly, the improved infrastructure and equitable distribution of computers is leading the transformation of teaching and learning in Oakland. Oakland now has 10 schools (5 traditional and 5 charter) participating in the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). Twenty-two more schools have chosen to pursue Blended Learning much like the original 8 sites. Some Intensive Support Schools (ISS) are looking to take advantage of the improved infrastructure in their plans. And, ALL schools have the infrastructure to choose how they want to use the internet to transform teaching and learning.

In the long run, I think we will be thankful that Common Core and online testing led to transforming our schools. This testimonial from Urban Promise Academy demonstrates how the changes brought on by the online testing are transformative.