Rural schools will struggle with new electronic testing

As Ohio school districts gear up for the state’s new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing, a system put in place to test for college and career readiness, many local administrators and educators are still uncertain about meeting requirements.

In January, Morgan Local Schools Superintendent Lori Snyder-Lowe wrote a letter to Gov. John Kasich expressing concern that the PARCC testing was all digital, leaving rural schools and students at a disadvantage when connectivity and access to electronic devices is limited.

Though some district administrators say they are simply trying to adapt as much as possible, others are concerned that the unfamiliarity with testing has left them unprepared, in addition to a lack of adequate technology needed to complete the testing efficiently. The testing will be used starting with the 2014-2015 school year.

It will track the progress of students from kindergarten through 12th grade, and will be implemented in the form of standardized assessments beginning in third grade and lasting until high school. The hope is also to make sure schools are maximizing their technological capabilities to prepare students for what they will face in jobs and college.

Tony Dunn, superintendent for Belpre City Schools, said his district is fortunate to have a good edge on technology, but the implementation of these tests is still concerning.

“We can support some of those changes better than other school districts in the surrounding area, simply because of our geographical location and the fact that we’ve had several people who have had the foresight and vision to utilize sources to stay very current with our technology,” he said.

Because regions like Southeast Ohio have different needs than other regions, this type of universal testing and standards is a problem, Dunn said.

“Legislation that forces us to majorly change what we’re doing in regards to assessment is concerning to us because the legislature does not realize the ripple effect caused by their decision,” he said.

Other school officials said their concern has to do with the necessary technology.

“As a rural district, we’re gearing up to handle this. I don’t have all the technology I’d like, but I have enough to handle it,” said Bruce Kidder, superintendent for Frontier Local Schools. “My problem is that many of my students are at a disadvantage because they don’t have access to technology at home.”

Kidder said he is worried that the lack of access means his students won’t do as well on an online test, particularly when they have never taken it and educators do not even know what it looks like.

“It would be nice if there was a practice PARCC to look at,” he said. “We have no idea what it looks like, so we’ll have to learn from it after we’re already taking it.”

Ohio Department of Education spokesperson John Charlton clarified that since Snyder-Lowe wrote the letter to Kasich, Morgan Local had gone through the process of using the state’s readiness assessment tool, which had determined that just a few necessary tweaks would allow them to effectively take the online tests.

“The ability to use technology is essential for kids to learn; they need it to be successful,” Charlton said. “Most jobs require the use of technology.”

Snyder-Lowe was not available for comment Friday.

The implementation of these assessments, Charlton said, has been in the works for years, and schools should be held responsible to make sure students are able to utilize new technology, just as parents would expect that a school would be able to provide textbooks.

“Just because your parents don’t have access doesn’t mean the child shouldn’t,” he said.

Marietta City Schools, along with several other districts in Ohio, is taking part in a pilot program this spring to give the state of Ohio a better indication of how PARCC tests will work.

Ruth Kunze, director of curriculum and technology for Marietta, said the pilot program will involve students at Harmar Elementary and Marietta Middle School taking both the online version of tests as well as the pencil and paper version.

For the pilot program, the PARCC Field Test will be administered to more than one million students across the 19 PARCC states.

“The pilot is going to help the state on their end to help us see what we need to do to be prepared,” Kunze said. “And we’ve been encouraging teachers to look at some sample questions that have been made available.”

The ODE has made sample PARCC questions for all grades available through its website.

“We took two readiness assessment tests originally and with both of those we didn’t feel like we were going to be ready,” Kunze said. “With this pilot we’ve gotten ready for that so we can participate.”

Joe Finley, principal of Phillips Elementary in Marietta, said that numbers at his school allow for only about 25 students to be on computers at one time.

“We’re still in the dark about what the process is, because it’s all new,” he said. “I’ll speak for Marietta elementaries when I say we do not have the hardware to ever be able to do this in an organized fashion.”

Charlton said the department has urged schools to use its readiness tool, as many districts are underestimating their technological capabilities.

“You do not have to have one device for every student. You have a several-week window to complete these tests,” he said. “If you have a one-device to two-student ratio, then you can get it done.”

The Ohio Department of Education will be allowing schools to ask for paper and pencil versions of the test, but Snyder-Lowe’s letter alluded to the difficulties districts would face trying to jump through the hoops involved in getting a waiver.

PARCC is a grouping of 18 states plus the District of Columbia that received an $186 million grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, which provides funding and support for schools to make advancements in the assessment of teachers and students.

The testing system, along with the Ohio Graduation Tests for high school students and the Ohio Achievement Assessment tests for younger grades, is part of the implementation of Common Core Standards, a set of learning standards to be utilized across states that focus on English and math.