Tab soars to connect rural schools to the Net

Tab soars to connect rural schools to the Net

CLARIFICATION: A proposal to spend nearly $10 million to connect a tiny rural school to the Internet, highlighted in this report published Feb. 19, was never recommended for funding, according the Imperial County Office of Education, operator of the K-12 High Speed Network. While K12 Network and the California Department of Education have used the example in discussions to highlight the challenges that remain, there is no plan to build the project that would have cost $2 million per student to be tested. The site administration indicates that it will either test students one at a time, or move them to a different location for testing.

(Calif.) A plan to spend up to $2 million per student to connect a tiny rural school to the Internet and the state’s new computer-based testing system drew an incredulous review Wednesday from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst.

Students in grades 3 through 8 and juniors in high school are set to take the new assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards beginning as soon as next month.

Despite a number of federal and state programs aimed at helping classrooms connect to the Net, a handful of schools in remote parts of the state still have no ability to interface with the online tests and futuristic software that automatically adjusts questions – harder or easier – based on the student’s prior answer.

This adaptive feature is highly desired by educators as well, apparently, as Gov. Jerry Brown, who proposed spending $100 million next year to close the connection gap for schools that either still have no Internet service or would be forced to shut down other electronic activities in order to conduct the testing.

The LAO suggested that legislative leaders consider some less expensive alternatives – including the paper and pencil version of the assessment.

“We recommend the Legislature not approve such extraordinarily high per-student costs,” the analyst’s office said in a report on the governor’s overall Proposition 98 spending plan. “We believe reasonable alternative exists to serve these students, such as busing them to other nearby locations to take the tests.”

Transition to the Common Core, which began in some districts shortly after the standards were adopted in 2010, has been a complex and expensive venture. School managers have been forced to find money for new instructional materials, additional teacher training and, indeed, more computer devices as well as adequate Internet plumbing.

Brown’s spending plan stands in contrast to his well-deserved reputation as a tight-fisted fiscal manager even has the state economy has greatly improved in the last two years.

It would also seem out of step with funding decisions that have required schools to cover most of the cost of transitioning to the Common Core out of general appropriations.

The 2013-14 budget provided schools with $1.25 billion for expenses related to Common Core but just $427 million was allotted last year. Brown’s January budget plan highlights $1.1 billion that can be used for implementing the new standards, but that’s money previously owed schools for undertaking activities required under state legislation.

Concerns that the state has severly under-funded the Common Core assessment program led last month to a coalition of districts with support of the California School Boards Association to file a $1 billion administrative claim, arguing that the tests are an unfunded mandate.

Despite the fiscal challenge, there are only 64 schools – out of California’s 10,366 K-12 sites – that would be eligible for a share of the $10 million in Internet grants that Brown would provide next year.

Of those schools, only nine – which serve about 60 students – were unable to administer the test online last spring. The rest – which serve another 2,000 students – were forced to shut down other Internet traffic to accommodate the testing.

The LAO noted that the cost to connect the remaining 64 schools to the Internet are not known because commercial service providers have not submitted bids – although some preliminary data suggests that prices could be enormous.

According to the California Department of Education, the cost to provide service to one small school with just five test-eligible students could be as much as $10 million – or $2 million per student.

For most of the rest of the state, the issue has been covering the cost of the “last mile” of Internet connection. This is typically the distance between a school site and its district office or the county education agency.

Last year, the state provided about $27 million in Broadband Infrastructure Improvement Grants to improve infrastructure at some 230 school sites. Bids for that work ranged between $600 and $1.4 million, according to the LAO.

Although the online version is clearly preferred, the national organization that developed the assessment – the Smarter Balanced Consortium – provides a pencil and paper version of the test that districts can use until 2018 when all testing must be done online. The paper test assesses the same content as the online version although there is some question as to whether results would be comparable.

The LAO noted that even if the state didn’t want any schools using the low-tech version of the test, there are at least two options that would be far less expensive than what the governor has proposed:

  • Schools with slow connections could test a small number of students (or even one student) at a time to reduce congestion on their servers.

Smarter Balanced officials estimate that about 50 elementary-age students could be tested in the 12-week testing period if they were tested one at a time.

  • Second, both the schools with very slow connections and the schools with no connection could bus students to other sites in their region with faster Internet speeds, such as libraries, COEs or community college campuses.