May 22, 2014

PARCC and Smarter Balanced Common Core Testing: Practical IT Infrastructure Tips and Hints

Chelmsford third grader taking the PARCC field test

How We Survived The Online Assessment Field Test

Image – Chelmsford, Massachusetts, third grader taking the PARCC practice exam, while Extreme Networks performs flawlessly behind the scenes. 

The Common Core State Standards continue to shake up education in America, having sparked debate among educators, politicians, and parents. A significant aspect of the new educational standards is student assessment and online testing. This spring, close to one million students and their teachers are participating in a field test of the online assessments. The testing started early this month and is expected to end in June. Testing of this magnitude is unprecedented in the history of education, yet will be dwarfed when full-scale testing takes place next year. The goal of this year’s field test is to get all the bugs out to be ready for the full implementation next year.

In the context of accommodating one million students and despite minor glitches and local war stories, the field testing has gone phenomenally well. Feedback from administrators, teachers, and students is positive. Each student who takes the tests completes a survey – here’s a typical example of the results from New Jersey.

The Chelmsford Public School District, with 5,200 students at eight schools, got a good jump preparing for Common Core when they upgraded their network infrastructure to insure they would have the capacity and coverage for all district, faculty, and student devices, including those to be used for testing. The district also instituted the Eye on PARCC program to prepare the community at large. As a result of their preparedness, their PARCC field test went amazingly smoothly.

The Chelmsford Public Schools IT team that conquered the PARCC field test: Anne-Marie Fiore, Executive Director of Technology and Information Services at Chelmsford Public Schools and her team of Mat Hall, Network Manager and Joanne Salomaa, Educational Data Coordinator

The Chelmsford Public Schools IT team that conquered the PARCC field test: Anne-Marie Fiore, Mat Hall, and Joanne Salomaa.

Anne-Marie Fiore, Executive Director of Technology and Information Services at Chelmsford Public Schools and her team of Mat Hall, Network Manager and Joanne Salomaa, Educational Data Coordinator recapped some of their important activities regarding their network and technology infrastructure to insure the testing went as flawlessly as possible. Their hints, tips, and experiences are shared below. As Chelmsford is located in Massachusetts, the school district participated in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing, but almost all of the suggestions apply equally to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing.

Here are thoughts and suggestions as compiled by Anne-Marie, Mat, and Joanne, beginning with Anne Marie’s personal reflections on the PARCC field test experience.

  1. Communication
    Speak with school administrators, school committee members, building administrators, and teachers. Let everyone know what is happening in regards to technology readiness of PARCC in your district. Blog it. Tweet it. Write about it on your school website. It takes a village to give a PARCC test. 

    Extreme Networks products utilized in the field test

    Extreme Networks products utilized in the field test

  2. The School Network
    Chelmsford is fortunate to have an Extreme Network with robust bandwidth, wireless capability, and switches handling 10 gigs between schools. All of these layers create the foundation for a reliable school network capable of handling the PARCC testing as well as our digital and curriculum needs. When you hear people discussing PARCC, much is made of the personal devices (computers, iPads, Chromebooks), but these devices need a solid network infrastructure.
  3. Social Media
    Follow Twitter #PARCC – We followed twitter throughout the field tests and beyond. Many districts were tweeting issues and it served as a heads up for others. We learned about issues that other districts were having and avoided those issues.
  4. PARCC Rangers
    Prepare your tech team for PARCC testing. Keep your eye on those PARCC Tech Bulletins and Weekly Technology Update Communications. Read every one of them. PARCC is not only an assessment for students, but also for your technology department. Whenever possible, manage the network installations and updates through group policy or other network tools. Even with the best network management, there are times when a school technician is needed to run around, help out, and do what they do best, FIX STUFF. Don’t forget to celebrate when it is over! Have an After-PARCC Party for the tech department!

Common Core PARCC Testing Punchlist

Here is a list of activities, factors, experiences, and suggestions that the team of Anne-Marie Fiore, Mat Hall, and Joanne Salomaa gleaned during their intensive period of PARCC field testing.

  • Tested on iPads, laptops, PCs, and Dell and HP MultiSeats (1 multiseat serves 7 students).
  • Tested on wired and wireless network.
  • Centrally managed network changes through GPO using ADMX Chrome Files.
  • Monitored network traffic to the Amazon cloud. We figured out that the test was in the cloud and started monitoring it just for fun. We wanted to see if the cloud services from Amazon were getting overloaded with students taking the test without proctor caching (see below). Many districts didn’t use proctor caching. They were going straight out to the Internet for the testing.
  • Used Chrome to download Java. Other versions of Java did not work.
  • Disabled Java updates once we had the recommended version.
  • Disabled Flash updates during testing period.
  • Disabled pop up blocker.
  • Monitored local network traffic.
  • Created a secondary save location for student response files to provide automatic mirroring in case of disaster.
  • Used proctor caching with a server at each school. Caching was good, because we could bring down the test to the network on a server at each location. If Internet access were to be interrupted during the test, the test could go on. That’s why we simulated a server crash. It was actually very cool. PARCC recommends proctor caching for low bandwidth schools, which we aren’t, but we found it very useful because it contained the traffic within the school and we didn’t have to worry about the external connection at all….during the test. Plus, there was no Internet lag of any type because all the traffic was internal. The test questions came up immediately. Very fast. Even with the fastest Internet connection, there are always some times during the day when the Internet is slower than others…with proctor caching, no worries.
  • Enabled Port 80 and 443 on the firewall for testnav.com
  • Recommend using an MDM for iPads.
  • Disabled IE accelerators. (Eventually abandoned IE)
  • Pushed downed customized icon to student desktops for training and testing site URLs defaulting to Chrome browser.
  • Chrome needed to be installed on server for proctor caching.
  • Simulated a local proctor caching server crash during practice sessions.
  • We asked our network integrator, Rutter Networking Technologies to check firmware on all switches and perform any routine maintenance prior to PARCC testing.
  • Checked with Comcast and FIOS to ensure no service was planned during PARCC testing.
  • All Extreme Networks equipment performed beautifully.
  • Check Java version.
    Check Java version.
    Check Java version.
  • Watch Twitter for up-to-date information. Hashtags #PARCCfieldtest, #parcc, and of course #eyeonparcc.
  • Look for PARCC Tech Support User Groups. There is a good one on Spice Works.
  • During the field testing periods, test all of your platforms. It will save time later.

Finally, one more tip from those who participated in the field test. Be prepared for (or prevent) lost and misplaced logins and passwords.

Think you’re smarter than a third grader? You can try the Grade 3 end of year assessment. Good luck!

Chelmsford third graders taking the PARCC field test.

Chelmsford third graders taking the PARCC practice exam. The test has audio and video components, as well as text to speech.

About The Contributor:
Bob NilssonDirector of Vertical Solutions Marketing

Bob Nilsson is the director of vertical solutions marketing at Extreme Networks. In this role, Mr. Nilsson leads the Extreme Networks strategy and programs for vertical markets including Healthcare, Higher Education, K-12 Education, Federal Government, and Hospitality. He has over 30 years of experience in marketing IT systems to Global 1000 companies worldwide. Before joining Extreme Networks Bob was VP Marketing at Clear Methods. Prior to that Bob held senior marketing positions at Digital Equipment and HP. Bob holds an SB degree in EE from MIT and MBA from Columbia Business School.

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