Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Fish Out of Water!

A Fish Out of Water

This summer I had the opportunity to attend and be part of a panel discussion at the National Conference on Student Assessment (NCSA) hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). This conference was held in the hot and muggy city of New Orleans, LA in late June.

Discovery Education invited me to be a panelist in our symposium, Confidently Stepping Towards 21st Century Instruction and Assessment: Views from the Field. My part was designed to give attendees a look inside a local school district’s plans for preparing for online assessments.

First Impression
My first reaction at the conference was that I was fish out of water. I arrived in my polo shirt, shorts, and sandals to be greeted by suits and dresses. I knew this was not my “tribe” (some of you will understand that). I had a choice to make. I could cower in the corner and try to disappear, or, I could embrace an opportunity to speak to fellow attendees and share my story from the trenches. I chose the latter.

Michigan Sea Grant

Attendees would strike up a discussion with me, glance at my nametag, and ask me why I was at the conference. Apparently, it is quite rare for a public school educator to attend a conference on student assessment. Hmmm. This reaction further fueled my intent to share our Jenison story.

My portion of the planned presentation had several agenda items. However, here I will share two items that I think are quite pertinent to local school districts.

Point #1: School districts have not truly tested their capacity to handle full scale online assessments.

From my role as Director of Information Technology, I am quite concerned about my district’s capacity to handle the online testing. If we were to enable every MacBook Pro, iMac, and PC during out testing cycles, we would have over 900 devices connected to the Internet. While I am confident that we could connect that many devices, I am more concerned about EVERY district in Michigan connecting at the same time on such a high stakes assessment. I can see testing overwhelming the available capacity.

My fears have played out in several states including Indiana and Minnesota. Folks from those states shared their stories. Their experiences were not efficient or effective. 

Many states, if not all, have implemented pilot tests to evaluate network and testing effectiveness. Jenison was one district in Michigan that did pilot testing. Our testing was fairly event free. But, we only tested a few grades in one building and not at the same time.

To help make my point about capacity, I pointed (really, I pointed) to the back wall of the room. Beyond that wall was the Louisiana Superdome. I said “Assume that there are 1000 toilets in the stadium. To test capacity, they have 1000 people all at the ready to flush at the same time.”  THAT tests capacity.


Using that same analogy with current tests of capacity for online assessment, assessment groups would put 10 people in the stadium to flush 10 toilets. If that works, the assumption is that it will work for 1000. THAT does not test capacity.


Point #2: Digital classroom instruction will revert to analog instruction during testing cycles.

During testing cycles Jenison will restrict online access to only those devices being used for testing. We do not want to risk compromising the testing events. The stakes are too high. This strategy may not be used in all districts, but this will be our approach in Jenison.

That means we will have over 1000 devices sitting idle during testing times. They will not be used for online instruction. We won’t risk it.

And this “downtime” will last during the entire testing window. At this point, we don’t know what the testing window will be but the impact will be significant. Testing every student in multiple subjects will take time, a lot of time.

Let’s say the testing window is six weeks. Then, for around 17% of our school year, we will use late 20th Century instructional strategies. We currently encourage digital instruction for our students but during the testing window, instruction will go analog.

Testing is impacting education, in a negative way.

Final Thoughts
I appreciated the opportunity to share our story with the assessment people. These folks were state level assessment coordinators, state level education department members, and national testing organizations. They were not local level educators. That omission concerns me.

FYI: Shirt and tie during my presentation. Back to shorts, polo shirt and sandals the next day!

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