New year brings a focus on tech problems with standardized tests

Patrick Semansky/AP

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As millions of California public school students prepare to take the Smarter Balanced standardized tests this coming spring, educators say they’re taking steps to avoid technology problems that affected some students last year.

“We had some difficulty with keys sticking, we had – definitely – problems with getting on the internet, and then getting students into certain accounts,” said Kelley Brown, a sixth grade teacher at Los Amigos Elementary School in Palmdale.

Brown’s school district isn’t the only one that had problems with the test-taking technology.

The 20,000 thousand-student Coachella Valley Unified School District tried to head off tech problems by purchasing iPads for every student. About sixty percent of students who took the test last year used their school-issued iPads for the test.

But that wasn’t foolproof either.

“The test was not totally compatible with screen size, enough for students to answer some of the problems,” said Coachella Valley Superintendent Darryl Adams. "There were also problems with students not being familiar with the keyboard."

California requires students in grades three through eight and grade 11 to take the tests. The kind of technology students use to take the tests is up to the school districts. Some schools use desktops, laptops, or tablets of various kinds like Chromebooks or iPads.

Many educators worry that the technological glitches lead to more serious problems than just logistical ones. Teacher Brown believes tech problems last year led to lower test scores for some of her students.

“Some kids are very resilient and they’ll bounce back and they’ll problem solve and they’ll really do well with that, [but] for some students it just shuts them down,” she said.

“We need to keep track of where the issues are happening when we are doing test administration, and then you need to have folks at the state department of education or elsewhere who are investigating the extent to which those issues are affecting scores,” said University of Southern California education researcher Morgan Polikoff.

Polikoff said he’s not aware of any statewide effort to compile the tech problems and study how the problems are affecting student test scores. Adams said his school district does not compile a list of standardized test technology problems and their effect on test scores.

The California Department of Education is aware of the tech issues.

“We’re certainly concerned about it," said California Department of Education Spokesman Bill Ainsworth. "We want to make sure that there are no problems whatsoever.” 

He said the company that administers the test for the state studied how to improve staff use of technology but not how tech problems affect student test scores. Ainsworth said tech problems last year were “minimal.”

California set aside $27 million in state funds last fiscal year for grants to improve broadband at schools in hopes of solving some of the connectivity problems that some schools faced. The funds were distributed to 227 campuses statewide and their projects are in various stages of completion.

In the meantime, teachers like Kelley Brown said the best thing they can do for their students to prepare them for the spring tests is to give them as much time in front of the computer so that when test day comes, all they have to worry about are the questions.