By Derek Liebig and Jaime Thomas
A proposal by the state Education Department to switch to digital test taking by 2014 has local school officials concerned.
The state has begun to send out overtures to local districts that it may require students take all state-administered standardized tests on computers, a proposal officials say may be difficult to implement.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge in regards to how we outfit and put the equipment in the district,” said James Watson, superintendent of Whitehall Central School district.
Thomas Abraham, Hartford superintendent, said there is a lot of consternation from officials about the issue, and they’re dealing with many unanswered questions. He said the state is looking into these changes in order to deal with prohibitive costs state tests now incur.
“They sent out specifications for hardware, asking what our capacity is. Most of our computers will be up to capacity at the end of this year,” Abraham said. However, he is concerned about districts that are less-equipped.
“What about the schools who don’t have the capacity for this: Who will pay? How will their kids take tests?” Abraham asked.
Although Whitehall has a computer lab in its high school and several computers in its library, the district simply does not have the capability to administer a digital test to a large number of students at one time.
“If they ask us to have a common testing day, we’re going to struggle to satisfy the requirement,” Watson said.
Abraham has similar concerns.
“Are we going to be required to put 250 kids on computers in the morning? That can’t happen,” he said.
Neither Abraham nor Granville Superintendent Mark Bessen think state technology can facilitate the changes.
“What I really get anxious about is the state’s capacity with the lines. The data in the system will be getting all bogged down,” Bessen said.
“I can’t imagine the state education site being able to handle 10,000 kids accessing it at the same time,” Abraham said.
The superintendents are especially troubled by the state’s lack of solutions.
“There are a lot of things they cannot or will not answer at this point,” Abraham said. “They have no answers for me.”
Watson said four or five years ago, Whitehall was increasing the amount of computers and technology in the district at a “quick rate,” but that expansion has had to take a back seat during a time of decreasing state aid and of budget cuts.
Watson said if that Education Department makes the transition, Whitehall will need the financial backing of the state to make it happen. But to date, there has been no indication the state will provide any financial assistance.
“It’s a huge unfunded mandate,” he said.
“What they say is ‘it’s going to be a concern, but don’t look to us for money.’ Some of the things the state is doing just don’t make sense,” Abraham said.
Bessen wonders if the state might require the district to modify their computers before and after exams.
“The state might say every computer in the system has to be configured in a certain way for the tests; that could cost money depending on what the state does,” Bessen said.
And there are concerns that some students may not have the abilities to take a digitized test. As the expansion of technology has slowed, so too has instruction.
For instance, Whitehall no longer offers a course in typing, which could be a concern if a student is required to type an essay during a timed exam.
Bessen also thinks the new system will be too much of a change from conventional testing.
“One of the things that happens is it’s a different modality than the students are used to from tests through the rest of the year,” he said.
Abraham is worried that hackers will be able to break into state education websites and access the exams, but again, he feels his voice is unheard.
“Superintendents are too used to having their concerns fall on deaf ears,” Abraham said.