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An uphill climb toward online testing awaits New York schools

Political and logistical impediments could thwart New York’s participation in a multi-state consortium formed to improve the quality of standardized tests.

When New York adopted the Common Core learning standards in 2010, education officials also committed to participating in a federally funded consortium that would produce a computer-based assessment system tied to the standards.

The computer-based testing would allow tests finally to require the kinds of critical thinking that the Common Core asks students to do, advocates say. In the online tests dreamed up by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, screens replace bubble sheets, students type their essays, and math problems are solved by dragging and dropping answers. Expedited grading would return results to schools in weeks, offering teachers valuable feedback before the end of the year.

State officials have long signaled an intention to shift to the PARCC tests once they become available in the 2014-2015 school year. But they still have not formally committed to that plan, and State Education Commissioner John King suggested last week, in the wake of the state’s first round of Common Core-aligned tests, that the urgency had passed.

“I suspect that we will perhaps move more slowly than some other states since we know that we have in place very high-quality Common Core assessments,” King said.

New York’s uncertain participation in PARCC is significant because it was one of 11 founding states to originally lead the consortium, which is touted as a necessary step to devise a high-quality national assessment that accurately measures college and career readiness. Though the core governing members remain, several states have dropped out or switched over to a rival consortium, Smarter Balanced Assessments, that is developing its own set of online assessments.

One reason cited for the exits are higher-than-expected costs. But anti-Common Core legislative efforts launched by conservative groups have also driven states to reconsider using shared tests.

Both issues are factors in New York.

Weighing heavily on the minds of state education officials is PARCC’s price tag. It will cost nearly $30 per student to administer the PARCC assessments each year, the consortium estimated in July. That would require the state to more than quadruple its spending on standardized tests for elementary and middle school grades, an investment that testing advocates say pales in comparison to how money is spent elsewhere in the system. New York spends about $18,000 on education annually for each student in public schools, but only $7 of that goes to the state’s testing program.

“We’re really asking about less than the cost of a text book,” said Matthew Chingos, a researcher who has studied testing costs.

The spending hike would come at a time when the political climate around the implementation of many of the state’s education reforms is tense. Conservative lawmakers, citing growing implementation costs, are trying to pull out of the Common Core altogether, while hearings are being scheduled to scrutinize the State Education Department’s reform policies.

For now, New York is moving forward with a PARCC field testing pilot this year, and officials say that they still hope to eventually adopt the online tests.

But administering online tests would also require significant technology upgrades in schools. Schools would need to be equipped with computers and expanded wireless bandwidth to allow many students to take online tests at the same time.

A one-time windfall of technology funding will soon be available to needy schools to subsidize the costs of upgrading their infrastructure. But that might not be enough to prepare schools in less than two years.

“This is a huge undertaking,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said of the ambitious timeline. “There’s no way we would be ready for this.”

King hinted at the issue last week, saying he’d make a decision “based on our sense of technological capacity across districts and readiness to shift to online assessment.”

Despite the uncertainty, preparations to make the transition are underway. In New York City, principals this month are being asked to inventory the technology at their schools to figure out what they would need to administer online tests. About 1,300 city schools are eligible to receive $51 million from a $87 million settlement with Microsoft to buy new computers and software in preparation for online testing.

Schools are also being recruited to participate in this year’s PARCC pilot, which would include field testing questions and training staff to proctor the new kind of test. Last year, seven New York City schools participated in a smaller pilot, city officials said.

Schools are learning of the requirements this summer. At a technology summit that the city hosted last month at Murry Bergtraum High School in lower Manhattan, more than a dozen administrators, teachers, and testing directors sat in on a session to hear Department of Education officials tell them about the work around online assessments.

Toward the end of their presentation, the officials mentioned another potential barrier standing in the way of schools’ ability to adopt the online assessments. Nearly two-thirds of teachers feel uncomfortable using online tools in their classroom and three quarters don’t feel prepared for online testing, according to a state survey taken last year.

Even so, city officials signaled that they hope the state moves forward with the PARCC tests. Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said last week that this year’s tests were a “first step” toward stronger assessments but were “not as strong as what we’re likely to see two years from now.”