YAKIMA, Wash. — A year from now, students in Yakima Valley public schools will take the latest and newest round of standardized tests, replacing the current model.
Students will not fill in the bubble for A or C, though, or write long answers using pencil and paper. Instead they will take the tests on a computer.
Sounds simple enough. But that simplicity belies the fact that a lot of students will log into several devices all at the same time, within a short window, taking up significant chunks of their district’s bandwidth.
As the state transitions into what’s called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the online math and reading exams aligned with the Common Core State Standards, school districts in the Yakima Valley are preparing their technological infrastructures — namely computers and Internet capacity. In anticipation of connecting thousands of students to networks like never before, some schools will participate in a practice test this spring to determine what works and what needs improvement.
The implementation of Common Core — a controversial new set of grade-level benchmarks for math and English — required the retooling of standardized tests in order to accommodate the more rigorous work demanded of students. Smarter Balanced will be used by 23 states.
As a result, schools will no longer use the Measurements of Student Progress (MSP) assessments in math and English although they will continue to take them in science. Smarter Balanced tests will be taken in grades 3-8 and 11.
One of the main changes is the all-online format and the technical requirements that go with it, which include the number of computers available, the age of devices, screen sizes and resolutions and what kind of Internet connection is required. School districts have scrambled to get their technology and networks ready for the transition.
Dennis Small, educational technology director with the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said only about 5 percent of the state’s schools currently do not meet the requirements to administer online exams.
“As a state we’re really well positioned,” he said. “We should feel lucky because a lot of the other states are not as fortunate.”
Yakima School District officials say their buildings will be ready to administer the online exams. In preparation, the district increased its wireless network connectivity, purchased more computers and multiplied its network bandwidth to four times the capacity of last school year, said technology services assistant director Andy Gonzalez.
The district has spent more than $800,000 on laptops, computer-on-wheels storage and charging centers, Gonzalez said. In addition, the district will soon receive nearly $2.7 million in federal money and spend almost $1 million of its own to further improve items like wireless access and cable density, Gonzalez said.
In East Valley, the district hired three paid interns from Perry Technical Institute last month to help with numerous responsibilities, including setting up new hardware for the Smarter Balanced assessments.
Superintendent John Schieche called it a “win-win for both parties” because, while the schools get technological know-how, Perry Tech students receive real-world experience.
Overall, the districts in the Valley say they are prepared — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t faced significant hurdles.
For example, the Zillah School District did not meet the requirements for a full-scale online test until voters passed a four-year, $500,000 capital levy in February.
Superintendent Kevin McKay feared if the measure had failed, the district would have been left with a piecemeal approach with inadequate internal funds.
“I think all school districts are concerned with putting so many students online,” he said.
The levy dollars also will finance security improvements.
A series of test runs last school year helped schools learn more about their network and student capabilities. Last year, several schools nationally administered pilot runs of Smarter Balanced. This spring, a more thorough and untimed field test will be taken by 3 million students in more than 20,000 schools, including 36 schools in the Valley.
Participants will take the test between late this month and early June. The school districts signed up with OSPI for three-week windows that were split into four blocks through June.
Elementary and middle schools in the state have the added bonus of a double testing waiver, meaning participating schools also do not have to take the MSP standardized tests. OSPI officials said close to 40 percent of the state’s schools opted for the field test.
Third- through eighth-graders in Selah will participate in the exams, said Superintendent Shane Backlund. The school district is attempting to expand into a one-device-per-student model and has been preparing for a large number of students logging into the district’s network all at the same time.
Fifth-grade math students in Wapato participated in the pilot tests last year. Spokesperson Mike Balmelli said the pilot helped them learn how long the exams could be — districts are noticing the exams are much longer than originally estimated — and how well their devices and networks worked.
The school district learned enough last year that it opted not to participate in this spring’s field tests, Balmelli added.
“We do enough assessments already,” he said. “To throw another one into the mix and not get anything out of it wasn’t going to be beneficial to us.”
The practice tests are time consuming: Each subject is supposed to take as long as four hours and can be administered over several days.
Last week, Smarter Balanced officials announced they were pushing back the starting date from March 18 to March 25, prompting some schools to reconsider if the pros of a test run outweighed the cons.
Prosser High School informed OSPI it would cancel its Smarter Balanced field tests for 11th grade because the delay interfered with the school’s spring break, remaining instructional calendar and additional testing.
“Because of the delay, we don’t have time in our schedule to reschedule,” said Assistant Superintendent Mary Snitily. “We had hoped to do it, we were anxious to do it but we cannot reschedule it.”
According to OSPI, more than 50 school districts statewide that signed up for the first three-week block can now test at any time through June 6. Locally, only Prosser and Yakima signed up some of their schools for the early spring test dates.
• Rafael Guerrero can be reached at 509-759-7853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.