As promised in my recent piece for the 74, For Kids in Traditional Schools, Testing Can Be a Challenge. For Some Kids, Parents & Teachers in Online Schools, It’s a Nightmare, I recently spent time traveling to multiple states and testing sites to get first-hand experience into the unfamiliar world of online state testing, and I learned some really interesting lessons about the mindsets, challenges, and incredible dedication it takes to pull off such a unique endeavor. I want to thank all of those who assembled with me at these sites including state senators, state representatives, city councilmen, school board members, administrators, school staffs, and most importantly the parents and students of our partner schools.
Remembering that online schools don’t have a physical location to test students, I was surprised to learn that many of our contracted sites (conference centers, libraries, and meeting rooms) do not allow food or beverages into the buildings. Comparing this to the traditional schools where the students are allowed small snack items and drinks at their desks, online students often get hungry and thirsty during their 3-4 hour state test.
Staff members I met had such high expectations both for themselves and for the students who would be testing during the week. I learned about the tireless labor of setting up portable computer labs with fully mobile networks, configuring machines to run at optimal test provider standards, and constructing multiple backups in case one system or computer goes down. The team on the ground understands that if something happens, the student must still test during that day as so many students travel great distances to their testing site, their parents often take the day off work to bring the students to test, and the state has tight timelines to ensure all students are effectively assessed. Staff members, many of whom are not hired for technical savvy, are shining examples of putting students first with each testing administration.
While in Alabama, I was told how the state actually turned off the computer-based testing while our students were still testing! Sure, it was after 3:30 PM, so the brick and mortar traditional schools were done testing, but due to the nature of how we have to test, we had students testing later than the “normal” kids.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest concerns for state testing (that even is criticized in traditional schools) is that teachers and staff spend so much time with testing, that they are not doing what they were hired to do: teach. Online schools see an exaggerated problem in this area. Just like the online schools have to ship materials all around the state, they have to shuffle teachers to the more rural sites in order to proctor tests for the students.
That means, if there is testing planned for Monday – Thursday, the teacher has to leave her home on Sunday in order to be prepared for the Monday morning test administration. She will then often stay in a hotel Sunday night, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night and then travel home Thursday afternoon after testing is completed. Instead of missing just one day of instruction for her students (the day their specific students took the test), the online teacher misses 4 days of instruction (sometimes all 5 days of the week, depending on the state and/or traveling requirements).
Now, consider that students are in many cases missing instruction for all these days, too. Additionally, families face the same inconveniences and disruptions as the teacher over the course of the week. It is not only the daily learning process that is disrupted for online students. Online students are taking high stakes test outside of their daily learning environments, unlike traditional students who take tests within their usual classrooms and with their usual teachers, among their usual classmates.
As if this wasn’t enough of a strain on the teacher’s family, the same teacher may have to do this 2, 3, or 4 times over the course of one spring in order to assist with testing all students across all grade levels. I know you may be thinking, “Why does an elementary teacher need to be at a test site for high school graduation tests?” Simply put, at a traditional school, administrators are on site to watch over the tests not currently being administered, to serve as hallway monitors, bathroom monitors, “relievers,” (or someone to relieve the proctoring teacher for a bathroom break), and more. Every test administration at an online school is an all hands on deck team effort in order to fill all of the needs that a traditional school never thinks about during a testing week.
I wish I could provide each and every story for each and every student and parent we met while on the road because time and again we saw resilient online schooling families overcome many different obstacles to ensure their students are in the best environment for their individual needs.
After all of the resourcefulness and challenges I have seen, there are really three questions to consider:
- Do we think waking students up extremely early to drive to an unfamiliar testing location (sometimes more than an hour) is good for their mental preparedness before a taking high stakes test?
- Do we think that having a student sleep in a new place, like a hotel, the night before the test, is producing an environment that is beneficial for his/her state-of-mind before a test (that in some states/grades has the possibility to hold them in the same grade next year)?
- Do we think that students sitting in unfamiliar locations (unlike their daily learning environment) with students and teachers they have never met provide the most positive test-taking environment?
I would argue that the already high stakes testing becomes even more high stakes for online students each year. Policymakers should be aware of these challenges when considering policies around online schooling. Understand the complexities for staff, families, and ultimately the students, and what it takes for online schools to administer state-required standardized tests.