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Pencils down, iPads up! LA schools' new exam strategy put to the test

L.A. Unified students will be taking the new test on iPads.
L.A. Unified students will be taking the new test on iPads. by Lexie Flickinger via Flickr

Gone are the No. 2 pencils and eye-crossing bubble sheets — Los Angeles Unified schools will begin piloting a new state exam on Tuesday, administered entirely by computer. 

Students in grades 3-8 and grade 11 will be the only ones  trying out the new test, designed by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium to measure mastery of the new Common Core standards.

The district has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in computer and Wi-Fi infrastructure this year, and since students' scores won't be issued during the pilot, all eyes will be on how the technology and test administration perform.

Superintendent John Deasy  tapped about $23 million in bond money to rush order 45,000 iPads for testing - that was 6,500 more than than the  bond oversight committee calculated would be needed. (The district  did not take into account existing computer inventory.)

Earbuds and keyboards were purchased separately.

Accessories and iPads are being delivered to schools along with charging carts, costing $2200 each, according to one recent Apple purchase order.  The carts fit 35 iPads a piece, putting the total cart cost at  about $2.83 million.

There are locks on each cart, and school principals were also called upon to identify a secure room to store the equipment after each day of testing.

The district administered a readiness survey in January and found 11 percent of school administrators have infrastructure concerns, including issues with providing the reliable internet connection needed for exams.

The district scheduled $800 million worth of  school site network and data center upgrades as part of its effort to equip every student with a tablet. Over 500 campuses are scheduled for the work, but only 59 sites will be complete by the start of testing. 

In the interim, hot spots will be attached to the iPad carts, but the district has not responded to requests for the unit and service costs of this stopgap measure.

Teachers were issued a tech troubleshooting packet, a strategy that Board Member Monic Ratliff has found worrisome. There will also be IT workers on call, but several schools will share their services and delays may eat into instructional time.

The California Department of Education gave L.A. Unified a wider time frame to finish testing than other districts. L.A. Unified schools will be allowed to test up until May 16. 

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