Maryland schools will be scrambling to make $100 million in technological and other upgrades to give new state tests aligned with the Common Core standards next year, according to a report to the legislature by the Maryland State Department of Education.
Some local school systems would need to shut down some of the normal uses of the computers, including sending email, to give the online standardized tests, the report said. Some districts reported that they need to buy thousands of new computers for the tests, which are required by the spring of 2015; others said they had nowhere to put the computers that they need to buy.
Lawmakers briefed Wednesday said the magnitude of the hurdles that school districts face — and the price tags — are concerning.
"Some of the data that they showed us raises some concerns," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and member of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
While he supports the Common Core and new assessments, Pinsky said, he is concerned that some districts are reporting the need for up to 15,000 more devices, as in Harford County, and millions of dollars in upgrades that they will have to pay for out of their budgets.
"I just want to be sure that we're prepared," he said. "If not, we might need to look at slowing down. You don't jam this down a local jurisdiction's throat when they're not ready for it."
The state is switching to online tests that will replace the Maryland School Assessments and match content taught under Common Core-inspired curriculum that was fully implemented across the state this year.
In March, one classroom in each school in the state will field test the new exams, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
In the spring of 2015, all students in grades three through 11 will take the tests in English and math.
The tests are designed to be more rigorous than the MSAs. The tests will be given over nine days, compared with four for the MSAs, and students will be tested for nearly twice as many hours.
"The big takeaway was that the biggest impediment to making sure that the PARCC tests come off a year from now, without the kind of problems we've had with the health exchange website, is too many of the counties are too far behind in investing in their digital infrastructure," said Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a member of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee whose district includes parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.
While a paper-and-pencil version of the test will be available for the first three years, schools are expected to give the tests online, which is cheaper, starting in spring 2015. The online version is mandatory in the 2017-2018 school year.
At a high school with 2,000 students and one or two computer labs, the regular instruction will have to cease for weeks at a time while the students who take tests are cycled through the computer lab, said Lloyd Brown, the executive director of information technology for Baltimore County schools.
Brown said he is not worried about giving the tests online by 2017-2018 because by that time the school system expects to have purchased a tablet or laptop for every student.
But giving the tests a year from now is "shaky," he said, because the school system will have to reallocate computers throughout the county to "relieve some of the pain."
"Making sure students are comfortable without stress is something I worry about," he said.
In Anne Arundel County, school officials are not worried about whether they will have enough computers; they're worried about where the computers and students will fit.
"We need more devices for sure," officials wrote in the state report, "but if we got them the big problem would be where to put them."
The Anne Arundel school system conducts online testing in computer labs, but said that without more space, it would need to use smaller devices or laptops and move them from classroom to classroom on a cart. Even with those, wireless and battery-life issues could arise.
But Anne Arundel school spokesman Bob Mosier said the district is not in any rush to buy technology for the tests.
"We have made this conscious decision not to run out and buy slews of technology that by the time we give the rollout of PARCC could be outdated," he said.
In Baltimore, which was not included in the report, city officials said Thursday that they had been surveying infrastructure needs to support PARCC.
Kim Robinson, interim director of the city's Office of Achievement and Accountability, said about 60 percent of the schools have the ability to administer PARCC and that the district would need at least 3,000 new devices such as laptops.
"We're feeling like that's obviously a big investment but one that feels fairly manageable since the majority of our schools are really within reach to be able to close those gaps," Robinson said.
The district also plans to spend to increase bandwidth and hire staff to support schools as they navigate the new testing. The city said it is optimistic because nearly all of its high schools have used online testing in the past year.
Carroll County reported that its greatest need was more staff. The district said it needs at least one information technology staff member per school, and more competitive salaries. The additional positions could cost $2.8 million.
Harford County reported that it needed wireless in more than 50 of schools, more support staff and more than 15,000 devices.
Howard County said it needs 1,830 more computers, some laptops will need software upgrades and the district wants an "end-to-end test of our network capacity" to verify its ability to handle the testing.
Henry Johnson, assistant state superintendent for curriculum and assessment, said he is not concerned about the districts meeting the deadline of having technology in place. He noted that some testing is done online now.
A significant number of students are taking tests, such as the science portion of the MSAs and the High School Assessments, online.
In some counties, such as Talbot and Garrett, nearly all testing is done online. But most of the large districts, including Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford, Montgomery and Howard counties, still give a large percentage of tests on paper.
The greatest concern of school system leaders, Johnson said, is that they don't have enough computers to give the tests during a four-week window in March and May.
"Districts want to make sure they have enough hardware in place so as not to cause instructional disruption," he said.
Cheryl Bost, vice president of the Maryland State Education Association, which represents most teachers in the state, said she believes there is still debate about whether the state should put so much money into testing.
"We support the Common Core, but this is taking a huge chunk of money away from implementation and going straight to testing," she said.
To test the capacity in schools, the nonprofit Education SuperHighway is working nationwide to help school systems.
Eleven of 24 districts in Maryland have completed those tests. Results reported to the legislature indicate that 85 percent of the schools in the 11 districts are not prepared.
"They are not ready to give the test and have a normal school day," said Adam Mendelson, a spokesman for MSEA.
He said that means classroom teaching or the school's normal Internet needs would be interrupted during testing.
"I just think that it shows that school systems up front are not prepared to administer the PARCC online," Bost said. "Many of them are saying it is a two- to four-year ramp up to get there."