With the introduction of a new computer-based standardized exam this month, technology in each of Montana’s schools — remote schoolhouses and city schools alike — will also be put to the test.
State and school officials have been working for more than a year to prepare for the switch, trying to ensure each school has enough hardware and bandwidth to give the exam and teachers are trained to administer it.
For a diverse, rural state, that’s not as simple as one might think.
Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Dennis Parman said the state anticipated adopting Smarter Balanced would put pressure on schools’ technological capacity.
“This is pushing the needle on that. Schools that really haven’t done much lately, it’s back on their radar now,” he said.
The exam itself doesn’t demand particularly fast computers but does require an Internet connection to run.
The Office of Public Instruction expects the state’s smallest schools to require the most upgrades. Parman said studies of broadband connectivity in the state indicate that fewer than 30 of Montana’s more than 800 schools are without high-speed service.
OPI has provided several tools for schools to analyze their “tech readiness,” however the onus is on individual districts to get up to speed — and make purchases, if necessary — before test day.
This spring will serve as a dry run for schools to find technology gaps and glitches in their infrastructure, according to State Superintendent Denise Juneau.
“The overarching goal is to make sure no one is not ready by next year, when it becomes official,” Kirk Miller, executive director of School Administrators of Montana, said.
One of Miller’s affiliate organizations, Montana Educational Technologists Association, won a contract from OPI earlier this year to provide technological support to schools. META staff members have contacted all schools to answer questions and offer tips and will operate a help desk during the testing window.
“This is the first time ever statewide we’ve needed to do a computer test,” Miller said. “We’re bound to run into some issues.”
Miller said technology needs of schools META has worked with have “run the gamut.”
Transitioning to the new test isn’t painless for a small school with limited funding and staff, said Woodman School supervisor teacher Louise Rhode.
Woodman School, west of Lolo, will test around 24 students this month.
The school’s only available Internet connection is through DSL, which it receives via a century-old phone line buried under a cattle field, Rhode said.
Diagnostic tests have suggested that Woodman has enough bandwidth to test up to 10 students at a time, if staff don’t browse on other computers or use the phone while the test is being administered.
“We’re prepared as best we can. We even considered busing to another place,” she said.
Rhode said preparing for the test has monopolized much of her time this year. She must travel to her home in Missoula to watch the test’s online trainings and webinars — the school connection isn’t fast enough.
“I can give the test from here but I can’t learn how to administer the test from here,” she said.
The change also will challenge some of Montana’s large districts, even those that already use other computerized assessments.
Helena Public Schools will test around 6,000 students, Assistant Superintendent Greg Upham estimates.
Only three of Helena’s 11 elementary schools have computer labs. The district doubled its bandwidth this year and purchased mobile technology carts ahead of the test, according to Upham.
“As a school, we are not tech-ready,” Broadwater Elementary Principal Sue Sweeney said.
The district will share the computer carts so each school can test its students more efficiently. School administrators are also being strategic about how they schedule the tests.
“We have to be very careful that we’re not taking instructional time away,” Upham said.
“It’s all technology,” he added. “Very simply, this: The more technology you have, the less impact on instruction.”
At Broadwater, students and staff are taking a practice test before tackling the actual exam. The program includes certain elements — an on-screen calculator and using the mouse to draw shapes — that could cause younger students who are unfamiliar with the program to stumble on test day, Sweeney said.
“I would say the teachers had more anxiety about the test than did the kids. They aren’t afraid of it,” Sweeney said.
Still, Broadwater staff is encouraging students to first write essays on scratch paper rather than type them directly into the test, as many aren’t yet fluent in keyboarding.
At Radley Elementary in East Helena, a couple hundred students will take the test.
“We’re actually in pretty good shape,” Principal Joe McMahon said.
The school has two computer labs, and each classroom has three computers. Every student in grades 3 through 5 has access to an iPad — which can’t be used to administer the test but helps students become comfortable using computers, McMahon said.
Like nearly half of Montana schools, Radley already assesses students regularly with a computer-based program called Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP.
“We knew (Smarter Balanced) was coming, and we knew we wanted our students to be able to sit at a computer for a while,” McMahon said.
In Boulder, it’s Internet speed that has Bruce Dyer, technology coordinator at Boulder Elementary, most concerned.
“We don’t have a lot of bandwidth. We have enough to test 25 students at a time,” he said.
Around 160 students at Boulder Elementary will take the test over about a month, Dyer said.
The school plans to upgrade its Internet connection over the summer, which will drastically increase the cost. Luckily, federal e-rate aid will cover more than three-quarters of the anticipated $2,000 monthly bill, he said.
Meanwhile, Amanda Nichols is confident her one-room schoolhouse in the Flathead Valley is ready to go.
The three students at Pleasant Valley Elementary, located 50 miles outside Kalispell, are outnumbered by the school’s four new computers.
“Our school is really well equipped with technology,” the teacher said.
The students already use the computers for MAP assessments and have taken a Smarter Balanced practice test.
“It’s amazing to have kids this day and age do so well with technology,” Nichols said. “They catch on quick.”