In Plymouth Hannah McGuire, right, and Lauren Kendzior work in West Middle School's computer lab, which is usually full. (Bryan Mitchell / Special to The Detroit News)
Seven students at a Grosse Pointe elementary school were midway through a 45-minute online math test when their computers crashed.
As another 18 students continued to type answers on their keyboards, the unlucky fifth-graders were rebooting their computers. Most lost all of their work and had to retake the test.
“It was complete frustration,” said Melanie O’Neil, a district principal who was an observer for the state’s Smarter Balanced pilot test last April.
District officials say bandwidth is inadequate across the district and students are hampered by aging technology. “If it happened with that small number of students, what happens if we have a system failure on a large scale?” district spokeswoman Rebecca Fannon said.
As Michigan gears up for an online assessment for grades 3-8 and 11 in the spring of 2015, a recent technology survey shows not all districts are ready for digital testing. This comes as lawmakers debate whether to continue funding test preparation for Smarter Balanced or send schools in another direction.
Some 86 percent of districts have the minimum technology requirements for online tests — 20 kilobits per second per student — and enough devices for students, according to the Michigan Department of Education, which collected information last month on bandwidth size and digital devices. Bandwidth measures an electronic system’s data transfer capacity.
Only 62 percent have the recommended bandwidth specifications — 50 kilobits — for online testing, which is expected to replace the paper-and-pencil Michigan Educational Assessment Program.
Schools with less Internet bandwidth, such as Grosse Pointe Schools, will be limited in the number of students who can test at once. In Garden City and other districts, an inadequate number of computers or other devices will hamstring efforts to test all students within the 12-week window.
To help districts get ready for online testing, the state awarded $50 million in 22i Technology Readiness Infrastructure grants in the 2012-13 school year to purchase devices and improve bandwidth. Another $45 million was awarded this year. State education officials say more money is needed for 2014-15.
During a joint House and Senate education committee hearing last month, an official with the Michigan Department of Education said a significant number of schools are not ready for online testing. Paper and pencil tests will be available in that case, education officials said.
Readiness has become a concern for several lawmakers as the test results will be used to measure student growth, as part of teacher evaluations and to rate schools under Michigan’s new accountability system.
“Tech readiness is a significant factor in moving forward, but students are ready for online. They are online already. Paper and pencil is out of date,” Joseph Martineau of the Department of Education told lawmakers Jan. 15 in his report on online assessment options.
The state wants lawmakers to continue to replace the MEAP with Smarter Balanced, saying it is the only viable option for the 2014-15 school year. A public hearing is set for Feb. 5 in Lansing.
Capacity issues nationwide
State Rep. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, said he is concerned after talking to school leaders in his district.
The biggest challenge is the limited number of computers for children to use, Knezek said.
One Garden City middle school, for instance, has 800 students and 60 computers.
“I’ve got significant concerns about how this is going to work. We are giving out $50 million in grant money and yet the department is coming back and saying we are 86 percent ready,” Knezek said. “If we are ready, then why are we giving out grant dollars? We are giving out dollars because we are not ready. That stood out as a red flag for me.”
As public schools embrace instruction using iPads, Chromebooks and laptops to provide everyday digital experiences for students, their limited broadband speeds are restricting how much online learning can go on at once.
An estimated 72 percent of public schools nationwide lack sufficient Internet infrastructure for digital learning, according to EducationSuperHighway. The nonprofit tests school broadband speeds in an effort to build the first database of online access across the country.
Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, said the average school has about the same bandwidth speed as the average American home, which is 10 to 20 megabits per second for advertised speeds. But instead of four people in a household, schools serve hundreds, even thousands, of users at one time.
The State Education Technology Directors Association recommends 100 megabits per 1,000 users today and 1 gigabits by 2017.
“I believe education is the great equalizer. The most scalable thing we can do to equalize education is to leverage technology in schools. But none of it works if we don’t have bandwidth,” Marwell said.
Asking public for money
To bolster bandwidth, some districts are asking voters for money. Grosse Pointe Public Schools has a $50 million bond on the Feb. 25 ballot. The money would let the district build its a fiber optic network, purchase equipment, renovate infrastructure and improve security.
In the Plymouth-Canton schools, a fiber optic network around the 54-square-mile district is under construction. A $114.4 million bond, with tech upgrades to be complete in 2016, is paying for it.
Last week, carts of iPads and Chrome books were rolled around the halls of the West Middle School in the western Wayne County district for daily lessons. Computers labs with three dozen seats rarely have an open seat.
“Right now, we are like a house. We have Comcast. But we are a house with 900 people in it,” West principal Clint Smiley said. “In a year and a half, we’ll be a lot of better.”
On a recent Tuesday, seventh graders studying the Holocaust each retrieved a Chromebook from a cart and began their lesson. Within minutes, most of the 32 students were logged in and reading articles on websites for the Anne Frank Museum and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex.
Student Max Williams said he is ready for online tests. At home, the 12-year-old’s technology cache includes an iPhone, a Kindle and a laptop.
“It would be faster and a lot easier to take the test online. Right now they give us too much time to take the (MEAP) and we sit around,” he said.