There's a lot to be said for having grade school students take their annual assessments online rather than on paper. Online test results can be processed and disseminated much more rapidly so teachers and parents don't have to wait until after the start of the next school year to know how their students fared, as is the case with the TCAP assessments now in use in Tennessee. Moreover, online tests can be more engaging and measure a wider range of cognitive skills than the purely multiple-choice questions to which paper tests are confined. And then there's the green advantage of avoiding the use of tons of paper that must be transported first to every school and then to central scoring sites.
So state officials are to be commended for joining a 24-state consortium that's developing common online assessments that are due to be implemented in the 2014-15 school year. The consortium, known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, has a $185 million federal grant to fund its work that includes "support [to] state education agencies as they work with the local education agencies to evaluate and determine needed technology and infrastructure upgrades for the new online assessments."
There's no doubt that the technology exists to accomplish the transition. Four states (Delaware, Indiana, Oregon, and Virginia) have already moved ahead with statewide online testing on their own. And right here in Knox County, School Superintendent Jim McIntyre's recommended budget would have achieved technological readiness by extending a robust wireless network to every classroom in the county and furnishing an iPad or similar device to each of the county's 56,000 public school students.
The question, as evidenced by Knox County Commission's rejection of the $21 million McIntyre sought for his technology initiatives that would have entailed a tax increase, is whether states and/or localities are prepared to pay for all of the infrastructure and devices that are needed to test all students.
In Virginia, state appropriations to its school districts totaling more than $700 million over a decade were earmarked for supporting an online assessment program that will be fully implemented this coming school year. While Virginia has about 27 percent more public school students than Tennessee and perhaps more intensive testing, it's clear that several hundred million dollars will be needed to prepare all Tennessee schools for readiness in 2014-15, but totally unclear where the money will come from.
When asked about the state Department of Education's preparations, its spokesperson, Kelli Gauthier, responds by e-mail as follows:
"The department is working with the other members of PARCC, a 24-state consortium, to prepare for online assessments in the 2014-15 school year. We are currently using a Technology Readiness Tool developed by PARCC to help us assess the current state of readiness in districts across the state. At the same time, PARCC is also working to define what the assessments will look like, and what technology specifications will be required…"
The readiness assessment is a joke if not a sham. No other school system has gone anything like as far as McIntyre proposed to in his budget request that got rejected. And when it was pointed out that the $21 million would be needed to meet the PARCC requirement, Commissioner Brad Anders roundly denounced it as an unfunded mandate.
If the PARCC timetable is to be met, Tennessee will need to follow Virginia's lead and start providing state funding of which no mention has been made as yet. Moreover, this needs to happen sooner rather than later in order to meet the lead times involved in installing extensive infrastructure in every school and then extensively testing it in conjunction with the devices on which the testing will take place. And then there's the need to make sure all of the students are thoroughly familiar with all of the protocols.
It's a poorly kept secret that the state intends to have back-up paper tests available for schools that aren't prepared to go online or encounter technical difficulties. But this creates its own set of problems because the results of paper tests and online tests will not be comparable.
If enabling states to conduct annual student assessments online were the only purpose to be served by putting all the requisite technology in place, then such a big investment might not be justified. But plainly there is much more to be gained by building a platform for instructional innovation aimed at preparing all students for the high-tech world that lies ahead for them.