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Maryland schools move toward online testing but obstacles remain

Giving standardized tests on computers has great promise, proponents say. It's cheaper and allows for quicker results and better test security.

But as Maryland moves ahead with plans for students to take newly created state tests on computers this spring, schools are still working to overcome technological issues.

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One year after the Maryland State Department of Education identified more than $100 million in technical upgrades needed in schools to be able to administer online tests, many schools don't have wireless Internet access throughout the buildings, and some have only one computer for every 15 students. Logistics — including a need to reconfigure computers before each testing session — also are complicating the move toward online testing.

School systems have made progress in the past year. Some school systems, such as Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties have purchased thousands of laptops and tablets. And tens of thousands of students tried out the new standardized tests last spring, giving schools a chance to test drive the online tests.

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About two-thirds of Maryland students who will be taking the state test, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, are expected to do so on a computer rather than with paper and pencil this spring.

The goal is for all students to take the tests online by the 2017-2018 school year, but state officials say they may try to extend that deadline if school systems aren't ready.

Much of the work on the switch has focused on aligning curriculum with the new tests and improving teaching so that students are prepared, according to a report from the education department to the General Assembly, which is tracking the state's transition to new Common Core standards and tests.

But many school systems still lack technology hardware. No school system in Maryland currently has a computer for each child. Among the counties that have nearly met that goal are Talbot, Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Wicomico. Baltimore City and Baltimore County have about one computer per five students. Dorchester and Garrett counties have only one computer for every 15 students.

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While having a school completely wired for the Internet and a computer for every child may not be necessary to give online tests, some school officials said those kinds of upgrades would help to ensure that testing doesn't interrupt classes and other academic pursuits.

Howard County is the only Baltimore area school system that plans to give all of the state tests online this school year. Carroll, Anne Arundel, Baltimore City and Baltimore County expect 75 percent of tests will be given online. Harford County will give all the new tests on paper and pencil because it doesn't have the computers nor the technical infrastructure to administer them.

Reading and math tests will be given to every student in grades three through eight.

Some school officials said they believe they are ready.

"From our standpoint, we think we are in good shape. We have WiFi throughout our buildings. We think we have a good strategy," said Greg Barlow, chief information officer in Anne Arundel County, a district that is ahead of many in Maryland.

But he added: "Provided some horrific thing doesn't happen."

In a statement, Howard County officials said the system is prepared and that they have made "logistical arrangements" and other preparations.

Computers are used in many schools for instruction, but in some school systems each one must be reconfigured so that the assessments can be given securely. For example, schools must ensure students can't access a calculator on the computer to solve math problems or that anti-virus updates don't pop up, wasting a student's time.

"The amount of human labor required to prepare devices for online testing and to deliver secure online assessments is excessive," according to the state education department report to the legislature. Staff members might spend hours setting up one computer, creating an "unsustainable work load," the report said.

State officials are exploring an alternative that would allow students to take a test on a website connected to a central server. Henry Johnson, who is in charge of testing at the education department, said more work needs to be done before this virtual desktop can be offered to school systems.

"This is a gradual phase-in of online testing," Johnson said.

Some school systems considered the online testing issues when they purchased new laptops. In Anne Arundel, for instance, officials recently bought thousands of Chromebooks that run on a Google platform. Barlow said they did so in part because the devices can be switched to testing mode with a few clicks of a mouse in a central office.

But only a small percentage of schools in the state have that capacity. In Garrett, Howard and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City, only half of the computers can be operated remotely. Another five districts have no computers that can be operated remotely.

The 11-hour schedule for assessing students in reading and math will be divided into two different tests, one administered in March and the other in May. The schedule allows schools without many computers to spread the testing over several days or weeks.

Greg Bricca, chief of assessments in Carroll County schools, said the expanded schedule doesn't alleviate his concern that when computers are being used for testing, they aren't being used for instruction.

"When you look at the numbers, we have enough computers, but we don't have computers sitting around waiting to be used for testing," he said. So a science class won't be able to use the computer lab, or the media center will be closed to students who want to conduct research.

Despite the technological needs identified by the education department, some school systems lack the money to address them.

Anne Arundel is one of seven school systems in Maryland that has one computer for every two students. That's the highest ratio in the Baltimore region. All Anne Arundel schools also have wireless Internet access throughout every school.

Baltimore County signed a $200 million contract last year to provide a laptop for every student but has not figured out how it will completely fund the initiative. The district is expected to have wireless in every classroom by the end of the year.

The city has some wireless in every school, but only a quarter of schools are completely wired and the district hasn't set aside the funding to significantly increase that number in the next year.

"This continues to be a work in progress. As we are gearing up for this, we feel we are getting there," said Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, chief accountability officer for city schools.

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