Mississippi Schools Work to Balance Tech, Testing

The amount of time spent testing on new electronic systems has been distracting to students, so Mississippi schools are looking to gain enough devices to allow all students to test simultaneously.

by Emma Crawford Kent, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo / May 1, 2017 0

(TNS) -- TUPELO – With students across the Northeast Mississippi region heading into state testing next week and some already in the thick of it, district leaders are gaining a sense of how their technology infrastructure holds up at the time when they need it most.

Last year, the Mississippi Assessment Program, or the state test, was administered completely online for the first time, and some districts made technology adjustments based on their experiences.

The Lee County School District did not have enough devices to minimize the time students spent testing during the 2016-2017 school year, according to superintendent Jimmy Weeks.

Since then, the district has purchased several hundred more devices, but still not enough that everyone can test at the same time.

However, each grade will be able to take the same section at the same time this year, which condenses the amount of time spent testing.

The more days spent testing, Weeks said, the harder it is for students to focus.

“That was an issue last year, but it’s not an issue for us this year,” Weeks said. “Our goal was to have enough devices so that each grade could test in a three-day time period almost like they did for paper and pencil.”

Tony Cook, superintendent of the Houston School District, said just since last spring, the district added wireless access points in every classroom at Houston Middle and Upper Elementary schools.

Although some glitches in last year’s state test were expected with it being the first time it was online, Cook said the district’s wireless network did not have the capacity to test as many students simultaneously as needed.

Cook said some students were kicked off of the wireless networks mid-test and had to start over. Houston students began testing last week, and as of Friday, Cook said the district hasn’t had any of those same issues.

“The longer we do it and the more we do it, the more familiar we get with it and the more we know what we have to have,” Cook said.

In the Nettleton School District, students use a combination of laptop computers and computer labs to take the state test.

Superintendent Michael Cates said technology has become a higher priority when it comes to budgeting district dollars with the Mississippi Department of Education’s switch from paper to online testing.

Nettleton didn’t make any major changes to its technology infrastructure between last spring and now, Cates said, but has been updating its technology slowly over time in preparation for online testing.

“You have to do it a little at a time to get everything you need,” Cates said. “That’s something you have to plan for.”

Upgrading technology requires money, though, and for districts with smaller tax-bases, securing that funding can be a challenge.

Cook said Houston, like many districts, relies on federal funding to fund technology needs.

Technology also requires maintenance – replacing outdated devices and ensuring wireless networks can support each school’s students from year to year – that Cook fears will become more vital with online testing but also harder to pay for.

Between Title I dollars and the federal E-Rate program, Houston, Lee County and Nettleton school chiefs say their districts have been able to make significant technology investments in recent years.

However, those programs are always changing, and district officials are wary they may not be able to count on them for funding in the future.

“Districts like us, middle-of-the-road size, it’s going to be tough for small communities with small tax bases like us to keep up,” Cook said. “We don’t really know where that funding is going to come from in the future.”

©2017 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.