As school districts across the country gear up for the new Common Core standardized exams this spring, school system officials in Prince George’s County have raised concerns about whether they have the technical support to handle the online tests.
William Watts, the chief information officer for the Prince George’s County school system, told the school board that his staff has been meeting monthly to prepare for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC exams.
“Our biggest concern is our ability to support 208 sites during the PARCC assessment’s two 20-day windows,” Watts said during an update on technology in the schools. “We’re working on plans.”
Prince George’s is not alone.
According to a survey by the Center on Education Policy, about 75 percent of the 187 school system leaders who responded this year said they face either major or minor challenges, including a lack of computers with adequate processing speed, bandwidth and personnel who can handle technical problems during testing.
Forty-three states and the District have fully adopted the new national academic guidelines known as the Common Core State Standards. The standards were designed to create consistency in learning nationwide and to promote critical thinking. The exams will be used to evaluate the work of schools, and in some districts, principals and teachers.
Field tests, which were given this year to about 25,000 students in Prince George’s and millions more across the country, were designed to help fine-tune the test before they go live this school year.
Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said districts across the state are “increasingly ready for this,” noting that many say they have all the bandwidth they need and have enough computers to handle the exams.
For school systems that are not ready, Reinhard said there is a option to use pencil and paper versions of the test.
Watts said the practice test gave the district the dry run it needed. It will administer another field test in February, he said.
Similar to other districts in the state, Watts said the bandwidth in county schools did not pose a major problem and the district has spent $23 million during the past 31 / 2 years to upgrade its infrastructure.
The issue for Maryland’s second-largest school system, Watt said, is that it has 70 technicians who are responsible for the 208 testing sites.
The district has had students take tests online before. But there have never been as many students taking the tests simultaneously.
“If there is an issue being able to get to that issue, fix it and contain it, that’s the biggest challenge,” Watts said. “We’ve done this for a half-dozen years. It’s just the scale. We’re scaling up to a much larger population that will be doing this online.”
Watts said that during the field test some students were unable to log on to their computers and a few computer labs went down. Those are some of the scenarios that the information technology staff is working to avoid, he said. The field test provided a window into what districts can expect, but not entirely, he said. For example, Prince George’s tested 25,000 students this year for the dry run. For the real test, he said, 90,000 students will be taking the test at the same time.
The school board’s chairman, Segun C. Eubanks, asked Watts what the school system needs to do to make certain that schools are ready.
“Every school has to be on target, and we can’t make any mistakes,” Eubanks said.
Watts said his concern is that PARCC is “going to be like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”