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9-27-12 Education Issues in the News

NJ Spotlight - Online Assessments Test the Limits of Public School Technology…Half of NJ districts lack adequate computers, Internet capacity

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By John Mooney, September 27, 2012 in Education|Post a Comment

As New Jersey moves toward a whole new battery of online testing, starting in 2014, a big obstacle stands in the way: At least half of its public school districts don’t yet have the necessary technology.

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In a survey this spring and summer, the state Department of Education found that just half of the districts had the estimated bandwidth needed for the testing and only half were using adequate operating systems.

New Jersey officials yesterday said they were likely to do follow-up surveys to determine the needs, school by school, adding that it was premature to determine what steps would be taken next.

The state’s Assistant Commissioner for Innovation, Evo Popoff, said at a meeting of school superintendents last week that he was not discouraged by the results and there would be a “far-reaching effort” to train staff and wire schools.

Still, it is just another of the daunting tasks facing New Jersey schools as the state shifts to new curriculum guidelines under the Common Core State Standards and the online testing it will bring beginning in the 2014-2015 school year.

New Jersey is part of a consortium of two dozen states -- known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) -- that relies heavily on computer-based testing as many as four times a year.

The survey, conducted between May and June to determine districts’ capabilities for secure and reliable online testing, asked questions ranging from current costs to details about Internet carriers. More than 90 percent of districts responded.

There was a great deal of focus on how much bandwidth is available to districts, given that large numbers of students will be taking the Internet-based assessments at the same time. In his presentation last week, Popoff said 100 Mbps of bandwidth would likely be more than adequate, yet the survey found that just 51 percent of schools had that much. In terms of districts, it was less than half.

In addition, the PARCC guidelines are very specific about the operating systems needed, even stipulating the size and resolution of monitors. The survey found that schools have considerable ways to go, with more than half using Windows XP, which will not be adequate.

The technological hurdles have been a nationwide topic of concern, since nearly every state will rely heavily on computers both to administer the tests and to quickly analyze results.

The assessment systems will also include vast online databases of sample test questions and other curriculum tools for teachers to use between the school-wide assessments.

In a Washington, D.C., hearing in April, state and federal technology officers lamented the sizable tasks ahead of them, from the issues of capacity to the security and integrity of the testing.

One of the issues still unresolved is what kinds of hardware will be required, desktop computers or mobile devices.

Among those testifying were state officials from Virginia, where online testing has been in place since 2000. Virginia is one of the few states not joining the online assessment consortium; according to news reports, its officials warned that it took the state six years to phase in online testing.

Star Ledger - Camden board of education denies applications for 'renaissance schools’

Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012, 6:00 AM Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012, 7:41 AM

By Salvador Rizzo/Statehouse BureauThe Star-Ledger

TRENTON — In a surprising vote after midnight Wednesday, the Camden board of education rejected all the applicants seeking to build New Jersey’s first privately owned public school facilities.

The board considered four applications, including one brought by affiliates of powerful South Jersey Democrat George Norcross, before voting down the proposals when the district’s school business administrator could not produce cost estimates for the projects.

Though Education Commissioner Chris Cerf may be able to overrule the board’s decision, the vote is a setback for the Christie administration’s education reform agenda.

In January, Christie signed the Urban Hope Act, a law allowing nonprofits to apply to start up to a dozen new public charter schools in Camden, Newark and Trenton.

Once a school board approves an applicant, the groups are free under the law to contract with businesses to purchase land, construct facilities and manage the schools with taxpayer money – a provision that could give companies unprecedented control over public schools in New Jersey.

Christie’s administration helped write the law, which was sponsored by Norcross’s brother, Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), and Christie has touted the legislation as a signature achievement on his education reform agenda. A spokesman for the governor declined to comment on the vote.

After deliberating for hours behind closed doors, Camden’s nine-member school board rejected three of the four school proposals unanimously.

The fourth applicant, the Kipp Cooper Norcross Academy — a partnership between an established charter school operator and a foundation run by Cooper University Hospital, where Norcross is chairman — mustered only four of the five votes needed for approval.

That project had also scored the highest of all the proposals reviewed by the school board members earlier this year.

Some officials said they were surprised by the board’s decision in part because Camden Mayor Dana Redd, a Democrat and George Norcross ally, appointed all of the school board’s members. Redd said she is a strong supporter of the "renaissance school" concept.

State Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden), who attended the meeting, said school board members had "legitimate concerns" that he hoped would be resolved in the next few days.

"I know that the majority of them do support the renaissance schools. They just didn’t have the information they requested," Fuentes said. "They want this process to be transparent, and that’s something I really encourage."

"At the end of the day, the children of Camden are left without new schools," Redd said in a statement Wednesday, vowing that she "will continue to move forward in advocating for our children."

The state-run School Development Authority is responsible for school construction and renovations in the states’ largest, poorest districts, but many new projects slated for groundbreaking have been stalled because of a funding shortage.

Cooper Foundation President Susan Bass Levin expressed frustration with the board’s vote, especially in light of the Kipp Cooper Norcross Academy project’s high rating. She said the project, a campus of five schools from first to 12th grade, could still be on track to open for the 2014-2015 academic year.

"For the children of the Lanning Square neighborhood, who would get a new state-of-the-art school instead of the 100-year-old building that they’re in now, I’m saddened for them," she said.

School board officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Barbara Morgan, a DOE spokeswoman, declined to say whether the state would step in and override the vote.

"This legislation was passed with the intent of providing additional high-quality educational options for these communities," Morgan said. "It is our hope and expectation that the Camden school board will continue to examine the proposals that come before its members through this process and not miss this critical opportunity for students."


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