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This month I’ve been in conversation with an outstanding school superintendent preparing his district for PARCC assessments.   As many understand, PARCC (and its counterpart Smarter Balanced), requires districts prepare their schools with technology sufficient for their student to take what will be entirely online, computer based high stakes tests.

“Of course,” he explained to me, “we need to become PARCC-ready.  But that is just the tip of the iceberg.   If we are going to invest in these substantial, even enormous technology upgrades, it would be foolish not to use this new technology in ways beyond the new tests.

“PARCC tech upgrades give us an opportunity to transform our schools to places of 21st century, student-centered– and this is an opportunity not be wasted.”

In addition, he added, preparing students for success on PARCC is not just a matter of ensuring the tech is there for them to take the test– it needs to be there and used in ways in which students develop the comfort and confidence.

This is a tremendous opportunity, and we can only hope that every superintendent recognizes as well as this one has the chance being presented to leverage an externally imposed new test and new test format– even when that new test perhaps is in and of itself unwelcome– to transform the equation of classroom learning toward 21st century, student-centered, technology in the hands of students programs.

This has been also recognized recently in a valuable new white paper from SETDA, State Educational Technology Directors Association, which I’ve embedded below.

The report has many important messages.  First, districts must carefully focus and determine their current technology’s capacity for supporting the new tests.

While there are compelling advantages to a technology-­‐based assessment system as compared to current paper-­‐ and pencil-­‐based approaches, schools and districts will need to validate their technology readiness for 2014-­‐15.

Validation for technology readiness is important even for states and districts currently administering tests online, as these Common Core assessments are being designed to move beyond multiple-­‐choice questions to technology-­‐enhanced items to elicit the higher order knowledge, skills, and abilities of students.

An article last spring in THE, Technology Challenges and the Move to Online Assessments,  also explored these issues.

The 2014-15 school year is a long way off, isn’t it? That depends on your perspective. If you are an eighth-grader, Friday night is a long way off, but if you are a technology leader in a school district or a state, the 2014-15 school year may be here all too soon.

Critically, the SETDA report insists that this PARCC/Smarter Balanced minimum specs, must not be the only factor to be considered when these enormous investments are made.   

education leaders must consider this information in the context of the full range of technology issues schools are addressing today.

SETDA strongly encourages education policymakers and leaders to undertake a proactive systems approach to addressing school technology needs for the long-­‐term,explicitly considering the present and future technology needs to meet curricular,instructional, assessment, professional development and school operations goals.

Key to this is recognizing, they argue, that digital learning is critical to 21st century career and college readiness, and that

Digital testing requires digital learning. Students using technology to take high-­‐ stakes tests must have significant opportunities to develop and demonstrate mastery of tested knowledge, skills and abilities via substantially similar technology prior to being tested.Teachers must be prepared to support this shift in instruction.

How?  SETDA outlines several steps, and provides several good resources.

Infrastructure is essential, and especially broadband, the significance of expanding cannot be overestimated.  100 MBS per 1000 students/staff may be a starting place for 2014-15, this report says, but that seems low to me; 1GPS per 1000, which they call for by 2017-18, makes more sense as a goal.

Attending to bandwidth access outside of school has to also be a priority for every educ

ational leader wishing to prepare his or her students for the 21st century world.

New devices are essential, and schools should not expect pre 2010 devices to support students in high stakes testing in 2014.

Devices need to be mobile, such that they can be used widely throughout the school, and need to be highly capable of creating content, not just accessing and consuming it.

BYO, which I have sometimes been an advocate for, unfortunately has to be very warily approached when considering PARCC/Smarter Balanced testing preparedness.   Test security can be harder to manage, and issues of equity on something as important as these very high stakes tests have to be paramount.

PD is absolutely essential, and has to be built in and budgeted in alignment with every technology plan, as does instructional coaches and facilitators and support staff.  Perhaps never before has the need for high quality professional learning been so important as in this moment of preparing teachers to use technology to prepare students for a very different kind of test– a test which matters so much,.

Financing all this is no easy matter– not at all.  At moments we all feel like shaking our fist at the depth and breadth of the effectively unfunded mandate these new assessments impose.

But, among the array of options include banding together with broader coalitions and consortia for joint purchasing agreements and seeking cost savings offsets by the reduction in paper usage,copying, and especially textbooks.    SETDA provides a separate tool for evaluating digital textbooks, including the critically important cost-saving digital texts, in a white paper entitled Out of Print: Reimagining the K-12 textbook in a digital age. 

Recognizing, as we all do, the value of collaboration and online sharing for learning and problem-solving, SETDA has also created an online forum, called Assess4Ed.net.

About Assess4ed

Assess4ed.net is a unique online community of practice. It assists states and districts in making the shift to online and computer-based student assessment, including implementing the RTTA program by the 2014-15 school year.  Assess4ed.net supports communication and collaboration between the private and public sectors, and – within states, districts, and schools –emphasizes the important roles for curriculum, assessment and technology staff necessary for implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and their assessment.

Assess4ed.net features webinars, resources, discussions, synchronous and asynchronous chats and other opportunities for communication and collaboration among assessment, curriculum and technology staff at the state and district levels regarding getting ready for online assessment. States and districts with significant experience as well as companies involved with statewide implementation of large-scale technology-based projects provide much of the content.

The Assess4Ed site is well-designed and comprehensive– it includes member forums and a wide array of groups to join and participate in– I’ve already signed up for several.  However, with full recognition of the insanely busy lives of most technology directors, it doesn’t seem that this site is altogether a vigorous hive of activity yet– but it will probably heat up as 2014-15 approaches ever faster.

The pressure to strengthen technology platforms within current financial constrains to be ready for the looming 2014-15 PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessment surely poses a kind of crisis for many districts, but as we know, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

Let’s not waste PARCC/Smarter Balanced readiness on tests alone– let’s leverage the opportunity to bring our students the tech tools and digitally savvy learning that engage them today and prepare them for tomorrow.