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Alaska's schools prepare for new computer-based exam

This month, for the first time, Alaska's students will log onto computers to take a statewide exam -- one that abandons pencils and paper and stands to test the strength of servers and bandwidth across the state.

The Alaska Measures of Progress, or AMP, assessment has triggered a wave of laptop purchases, a gathering of headphones and a sprint to upgrade bandwidth or set up new servers at Alaska schools. The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development says teachers have spent many hours helping students learn how the tests work.

"Being able to use technology is one of the skills that we know is important for our graduates," said Elizabeth Davis, assessment administrator for the Department of Education.

Andrew Haviland, principal at White Mountain School in rural Western Alaska, said the school set up a local cache server so students could take the statewide exams offline, saving bandwidth. Twenty-three students will take the tests at the school that serves kindergarten through 12th grade.

"It will be fine," Haviland said. "It's one more thing to teach the students, though. During the year when we should be focusing on the curriculum, now we're teaching them how to take a test."

Alaska's students in grades three through 10 must take the English language arts and math statewide exams during a five-week testing window that starts March 30. This year, fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders will continue to take the science portion of the statewide exam on paper, though next year it will also move to computers, Davis said.

AMP replaces the Alaska Standards Based Assessment, or SBA, implemented in 2005. It sets a new baseline for student growth, so the exam's results will be not be comparable to last year's, said Brian Laurent, data management supervisor at the Department of Education.

The new academic standards were adopted by the state in 2012. Davis said Alaska's academic standards feature technology benchmarks that make the computer-based exams appropriate. For instance, by the end of fourth grade a student should be able to type one page of text in a single sitting.

By the end of this month, Alaska's students will have to know how to use a computer to drag and drop items, draw lines and plot points on a graph to complete the AMP exam. The state has provided schools with practice tests so students can learn the computer tools as well as groups of practice questions so students can test their knowledge on specific subject matter.

Dawn Pomrening, the sole teacher at the tiny Pelican City School District in Southeast Alaska, said her students have taken well to the short, technology-infused AMP practice questions. For them, toying with computer programs is fun and quickly learned.

"I like that it's more interactive for the students; it's not fill in the bubble, and I think the kids like that," she said.

In the remote Bering Sea island community of Little Diomede, principal and teacher Pam Potter said the computer training has presented more of a challenge for the 10 students who will take AMP.

For weeks, the school had limited Internet access after a fire destroyed transmission hardware. A temporary lack of helicopter service prevented a quick fix, she said.

Last week, after helicopter service resumed, students logged onto computers for the first time to take an AMP technology practice test. The class spent most of the time simply navigating how to cross out incorrect answers and select the right answers before the Internet shut down again.

"They're trying, but it's tough," Potter said. "We've worked all year. They've worked their little bottoms off. I don't want them not to pass because of the computer."

Potter estimated that nearly all the school's students live in homes without computer access. The school, however, has enough computers for each student to take the statewide exam.

Davis, the state assessments administrator, acknowledged that teachers will have to spend more time helping students learn how to take AMP during the first few years of the exam. When Davis toured some of Alaska's rural and remote schools this school year, she said, students were not fazed by the addition of computers into their testing regimens.

"Every kid was saying, 'Oh, this is just how we do school,'" she said.

Roughly 95 percent of Alaska's students will take AMP on computers. Some students with disabilities will take the exam on paper. A few of the state's correspondence programs have asked for waivers from the computer requirement because they do not have the proper infrastructure, Davis said. Winterberry Charter School in Anchorage, a public Waldorf-inspired school, asked for a waiver because it does not introduce technology into the classroom until sixth grade, said Shanna Mall, the school's principal.

At the schools using computers for AMP, the amount of time and money spent preparing to launch the statewide exam varies.

"For some districts it's been a long year of problem solving, and other districts in October were like, 'We're ready,'" Davis said.

In preparation for AMP, the Anchorage School District spent nearly $1.1 million on 3,900 new laptop computers, which will be used for testing and then deployed into classrooms for other curricular activities, Heather Roach, ASD senior communications specialist, said in an email. The school district will increase its bandwidth for the five-week testing window at a cost of about $34,400, Roach said.

The school district also ordered headphones for students, said Allison Susel, ASD test coordinator. Susel said ASD encouraged teachers to have their students take the AMP technology practice tests at least two or three times this school year.

"ASD's ready for it," she said. "I think we're leading the charge."

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, which already administers a computer-based assessment that is not mandated by the state, did not have to up its bandwidth for AMP, said Monica Goyette, one of the district's executive directors of instruction.

But it did purchase 400 new computers for about $150,000, Goyette said.

Davis said school districts had to pay the bills for purchases made to accommodate AMP. She said she did not have an aggregate number for how much school districts paid to be ready for the exams.

"It's been a big undertaking in the state," she said.

To pay for AMP, the state engaged in a five-year, $25 million contract with the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at the University of Kansas. KU developed AMP and has also provided Alaska with a series of practice tests and an interim assessment that will start in the fall of 2016, Davis said.

She said the cost did not exceed what the state paid for the SBA, the previous statewide exams.

In the coming years, AMP will change. The exams will become dynamic. Students' answers will determine if their next set of questions will become easier or harder. The assessments will eventually factor into educator evaluations, Laurent said.

To prepare for the mass of students that will take the statewide exams starting March 30, the state hosted an "AMP It Up! Day" in January asking all of Alaska's students to log onto the system.

Laurent said the day went well, though some students had trouble accessing the exams. Those problems should be fixed now, he said. The day allowed school districts to test their local bandwidth and servers.

A server sits in the back of Eric Campbell's classroom in the coastal village of Wales, about 26 miles east of Diomede. Following a five-page tutorial from the Bering Strait School District, an employee at Wales school set up the server this school year.

The server will allow the students to take the AMP exam even if the Internet goes out. If heavy snow falls in Wales during the five-week testing window, Campbell said, a school employee will go outside and brush off the satellite dish. Meanwhile, inside, the server will allow the exam to continue until the Internet reconnects.

"We hope it's smooth sailing," he said.

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