Picture this. You’re a fly on the wall on Friday morning, and you’re in one of any of our Huntsville City Elementary Schools. As all elementary students (and I hope parents) are aware, Friday tends to be the default testing day in school. It’s the day when students are tested on all the things they learned during the week.
The weekend presents a natural break to the typical elementary schedule. On Mondays and Tuesdays, they learn new stuff. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, they master new stuff. On Friday, they demonstrate that mastery by taking tests. It’s just the way the world works. And so Friday is testing day. It might cover spelling, reading, math, science, grammar, or social studies, and it makes for a busy day on even the best of days.
Plus, it’s Friday. Like the whole rest of the world, our kids are tired and can’t wait for the weekend.
Earlier, in Huntsville City Schools, when a teacher gave a reading test, the class would take out their books, open them, read a passage, and then answer a series of questions about that passage on a piece of paper so the teacher could evaluate their reading comprehension. Perhaps a student or two might need to sharpen their pencils, but otherwise getting ready for the test takes a minimal amount of time. If the test had 20 questions, the total time, start to finish, to administer the test might take 20-25 minutes.
It was a tried and true system that had been honed to a pencil point’s sharpness. It worked.
Fast forward to the present and the wonders of computer-based testing. It’s Friday, and the teacher is getting ready to take that same reading test.
First, all the students have to get their netbooks out, turned on, and booted up. If they followed the suggestions of the district and shut their computers down at least once every night, getting the computers ready for use probably takes about 2-3 minutes. (The beauty of a textbook is that it doesn’t need to be booted to be useful.) While waiting for all 26 of the computers to boot and be ready to use, one student raises her hand. She says, “Ms. Doe? I left my computer at home.” As Ms. Doe moves to help her get set up at the old desktop left in the room, across the room, two more of students raise their hands to say that their batteries only have about 4% remaining on them. Either they forgot to charge them, or the batteries that are now about a year and half old are starting to lose their ability to hold a charge.
Being the master of multitasking (as all teachers are), Ms. Doe asks them to move to the carpet under the smart board and plug in to the outlet there.
Once everyone has a booted computer, Ms. Doe asks them to find the Pearson Reading site. As it’s April, this doesn’t take that long anymore, but at the beginning of the year, it was rather difficult.
You see there isn’t just one single unified Pearson curriculum that you click into on the computers. There’s a site for reading. There’s a site for math. Then there’s a site called Socrative that’s also used for computer-based testing.
Once everyone gets to the proper site, then Ms. Doe has to log-on herself and authorize the test. Usually this is a fairly simple and quick process, but when the entire school is trying to test using Pearson’s site, there are problems. Either the Pearson site cannot handle the load, or the school’s brand new and constantly monitored wireless network can’t.
So the class waits, as patiently as a group of 26 nine and ten year olds can manage, while Ms. Doe attempts to understand if the issue is on the school’s end or on Pearson’s end. Either one is certainly possible.
After about ten minutes, the site begins to work, and now the students have to connect to the test. This involves refreshing their Internet Explorer browser. (For some reason the district has decided that Microsoft’s browser, you know, Gates’ browser, is the only one that students should be allowed to use. It doesn’t matter that the Pearson site opens quicker in Firefox or Chrome, it doesn’t matter that many of the sites that teachers need to use really don’t open in Internet Explorer, that is the only browser allowed to be use on the district’s computers anymore under threat of suspension or even explosion.
Once everyone has a browser that has refreshed showing the available test, the class can finally begin to take the test.
And so, the class who’s patience has already been tested waiting for the system to work, finally begins testing about 25 minutes after they thought they were starting the brief, twenty-question test.
On a good day, that would be the end of the story. The class would complete the test and move on to something else. Perhaps one of the other tests scheduled for the end of the week.
But this wasn’t a good day.
First, one student raises his hand. He’s completed question 14, but for some reason, there’s no button on his screen to click next as there was for the previous 13 questions, and he has no idea how to continue with the test. While she’s working with him, one by one, Ms. Doe begins to be approached by students carrying their netbooks up to her. It seems that the rest of the class is having a similar issue.
Since this happens, oh, nearly every single Friday, Ms. Doe announces that those who are having issues moving forward in the test need to click the save button, close Internet Explorer, and restart the browser.
It seems the new WiFi network that was installed over the summer and that the superintendent has claimed has been “tweaked” ever since has brought all of the testing, on a simple 20 question reading quiz, to a screeching halt.
Literally. When a class of 26 are all stuck during a test, the collective sound is quite similar to a set of faulty brakes on an 18-wheeler, trying to stop at the bottom of Airport Road as it heads to the parkway.
It isn’t pretty.
After everyone in the class has closed their browser, restarted it, connected again to the Pearson site (assuming that the WiFi has stopped hiccuping), they can now get back to the quiz.
Luckily the Pearson people are used to this happening, so most of the class is able to start right back where they left off.
One girl raises her hand to let Ms. Doe know that she can’t go back to the question she was on. She can only go to the question before. So again, Ms. Doe has to work one to one with the student to help her calm down and start over.
When a student believes she’s lost her work, there often follows a fairly panicky few moments for her.
Luckily, there’s a caring human being in the room who can help calm her down so she can continue a quiz that everyone should have finished 15 or 20 minutes earlier.
When the class is able to settle down and continue the test, most of the students restart the test by re-reading the story, after all what was supposed to be a fair quick test is now taking them right up to lunchtime.
They re-start the test, and hopefully this time, they’re able to complete the quiz and see how they did. What should have taken about 20-25 minutes has now taken close to 90 minutes of class time to complete.
I’m sure it’s been a while since many of my readers have taken a test, so let me ask you this: when you really need to concentrate on a project at work, is it helpful or harmful to the quality of that work when the Internet crashes, your computer needs to be restarted, and 25 other nine or ten year-olds are jumping around in your office?
Do you, as an adult, find such an environment helpful?
I didn’t think so.
That’s what placing computers in our classrooms (at a cost of nearly $30 million) has brought us.
That’s what Pearson, HP, and Microsoft have introduced into the classroom.
I’ve asked around, and while this assessment isn’t scientific, the consensus seems to be that it isn’t unusual for a teacher to spend about 30 minutes a day addressing technical issues that our students are facing with the computers.
At 180 days in a school year, 30 minutes a day adds up to a loss of nearly 14 days. That’s almost three weeks of instructional time lost to having our teachers play computer technician.
So that’s what we’ve lost: concentration, money, and time.
What exactly have we gained from the 1:1 digital initiative?
Beginning on April 15th, all of our elementary schools will begin the end of year testing. Every one of them will be taking far more involved tests than a short reading quiz.
And every time the board has asked the superintendent for reassurances that our network will be up to the task of keeping everyone online, his response has been, shall we say, less that reassuring.
It has basically been, “we’ll take care of any issues that we face.”
Hmm, like the district has taken care of network issues that have been on-going since August?
It’s April and we still can’t rely on the computers to take even a simple quiz without interruption.
It’s time to turn them in, not purchase 2,000 more of them as the district approved on Thursday night.
And to those who at the beginning of the year said, “We just need to give them time to work out these issues,” it’s April. If it isn’t fixed by now, it isn’t going to be fixed.