California officials have identified many schools that will have difficulty offering online statewide tests scheduled in the spring unless their Internet capacity is improved.
In response to surveys asking schools to identify their Internet connection problems during the Smarter Balanced field tests earlier this year, a group of technology experts winnowed down the initial list of schools eligible for Internet improvement upgrades from more than 600 to 304.
California lawmakers set aside $26.7 million in June to help school sites shore up their Internet connections so their students would be able to take the Smarter Balanced tests, which will measure their critical thinking and other skills aligned with the Common Core State Standards.
But government employees contracted to survey the state’s schools to determine whether they may be eligible for broadband upgrades say the Broadband Infrastructure Improvement Grant fund will fall far short of the need.
“We could probably spend all of the $27 million on eight or nine counties in the northern part of the state,” said Teri Sanders, the senior director of education technology at the Imperial County Office of Education/K-12 High Speed Network, which works with the majority of the state’s schools to help improve their routing and connection to the Internet.
Those areas alone would need the entire state grant fund just to make it possible to do the computerized testing with any degree of efficiency, Sanders said. “These sites that have zero to very low connectivity are in areas that are so sparsely populated” that commercial Internet providers “have never invested in building to the areas,” Sanders added.
The California Department of Education said last month that most California schools were able to give the field tests last spring without Internet problems. But it is attempting to shore up Internet access, especially for small schools in more remote areas.
The Northern California counties Sanders referred to, some of which include Humboldt, Sonoma, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama and Trinity, account for 67 of the 304 school sites in the state that are eligible for broadband upgrades, according to data collected by the high-speed network group. In total, the schools represent about 1 percent of California’s 6.2 million public school students and 3 percent of the state’s 10,366 schools, including schools in rural and urban areas.
The cost of getting schools in gear for the Smarter Balanced test varies dramatically, depending on how remote an area is and whether there are enough potential customers to lure Internet and cable TV providers there. If an area is remote, the cost of building infrastructure, such as laying down miles of fiber, could be prohibitive for a school site, said Edward Avelar, an outreach specialist for technological services for the high-speed network group.
Smarter Balanced recommended that each student taking the online test would need access to a basic connection of 20 kilobits per second. But Avelar said that estimate did not include other traffic on a school site’s bandwidth, such as other online instruction or online work by the school’s administration.
Even schools in the county that houses technology giants like Apple and Google have unresolved Internet problems. Two schools in Santa Clara County – Loma Prieta Elementary and CT English – are finalists for the Broadband Infrastructure upgrades.
The schools, which are a stone’s throw apart in a rural area just outside of Los Gatos, are a mere 10 feet away from underground fiber cable that would give the district the bandwidth it needs for the online tests, according to Corey Kidwell, superintendent of the Loma Prieta Joint Union School District. Other fiber cable sits about a mile away.
To have reliable Internet access for her test-takers at the two schools, Kidwell says the district needs a 1 gigabit connection, which is far faster than the 50 megabit bandwidth it used for online testing last year. Comcast, the schools’ provider, has offered to increase the district’s Internet capacity to about one-third of the 1 gigabit speed for $3,500 a month. Another company, Sunesys, offered to connect the schools to the underground cable a mile away for $1 million, with an ongoing monthly maintenance fee of $3,500.
“Our total annual budget is $4 million; I couldn’t do that,” Kidwell said. “When Smarter Balanced came, it sucked all the bandwidth out of the school and the shared resources in the community. I am sure it slowed everyone around us down to a crawl,” she said, adding, “We’re on the edge of Silicon Valley. This is silly.”
If the district doesn’t get the broadband grant, Kidwell said, it will do whatever is needed to make sure students take the test, but it will be at a cost. “Last year we basically had to disrupt instruction for at least three weeks,” she added, “because nobody could use computers while the 365 students took the test.”
“I am sure it slowed everyone around us down to a crawl,” said Loma Prieta Joint Union School District Superintendent Corey Kidwell, referring to poor Internet service during online student testing. “We’re on the edge of Silicon Valley. This is silly.”
Internet connection problems also affect schools in urban areas. Thirty-seven schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District are among the finalists for the state grants. Typical issues during the Smarter Balanced test last year included being bumped off the test site, screen freezes and problems logging in, according to district data.
The district applied for the state grant to help offset the construction costs of improving their fiber cable connections at those 37 schools, according to Samuel Gilstrap, a district spokesman. If the district does not get the service upgrade, it will use a device that controls traffic on its bandwidth for the spring test, until it secures more funding, Gilstrap said.
Backup plans for other districts include spreading their testing of students over time. Other schools may have to test fewer students at the same time or transport them elsewhere to take the test.
The Smarter Balanced field test last spring revealed a host of problems for other school sites that made the list for broadband upgrades as a result of the severity of their online problems. By far the biggest problem was that students could not take the test at the same time. One-hundred and sixty-nine schools had to “limit simultaneous test takers,” while 52 schools had to shut down online activity and 24 schools had to transport their students to another site, according to the high-speed network group.
Mountainous Trinity County is considering using microwave devices on towers to transmit computer data to schools and allow about 150 students in 3rd through 8th and 11th grades to take the required test in the spring, said Robert Jackson, the Trinity County Office of Education’s technical director.
But if the state selects Trinity’s schools for service upgrades, engineers tasked with deploying the upgrade may find other methods, Jackson added.
To be a finalist for an upgrade, schools must show that they do not have Internet connections or have connectivity problems that will interfere with their ability to offer the test online.
In rural Tulare County, “connecting to the high-speed fiber network was not an option, because the cost would have been in the hundreds of thousands,” said Daniel Huecker, director and superintendent of the Eleanor Roosevelt Community Learning Center, a K-12 charter school. If his school is not selected for an upgrade, his backup plan for the 162 students required to take the spring test is to schedule some students earlier in the school year and others later, in order to work with the wireless connection the school uses.
In the coming months, industry experts working with the California Department of Education and statewide organizations will review the school sites on the list to rank their need, department spokeswoman Tina Jung said.
“If there are insufficient funds available to award all applications that receive a qualifying score,” Jung said, “a priority ranking will be applied until all funds are exhausted.” The department has asked for a Dec. 18 deadline for deciding which schools will get service upgrades through the state Internet grant program.
The timeline raises concerns about whether the school sites chosen for upgrades will be able to get them in time for the spring test. “Once you put an order in to a provider, it takes 90 days from that date for service,” said Sanders of the high-speed network group.
If students are unable to take the test online for any reason, they’ll have the option of taking a hard copy version, Jung said. The high-speed network group will also work to secure discounted rates for schools not awarded service upgrades, according to Avelar.
At the same time, other administrators are weighing their options if their schools aren’t selected for an upgrade.
The Trinity County Office of Education will have to resort to measures it used last year during the field test if its schools are not awarded a service upgrade, said Sarah Supahan, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
It will schedule fewer students taking the test at one time, she said, “which in one school meant one student at a time – or transport students an hour or more away to another district to take the test, possibly on multiple days.”
“Until other funds can be found and improvements can be made,” Supahan added, “I don’t see any other option.”