Tennessee Schools Continue Closing Tech Gap

More than 99 percent of the school districts in Tennessee have reported that their networks are ready for statewide testing online.

by Jane Roberts, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn. / September 8, 2015
(TNS) --School districts in Tennessee have had several years to buy enough computers and get bandwidth up to speed so every student can take state tests online, starting this school year.

Friday, the state released a snapshot of where they are, based on a self-survey districts completed this summer.

More than 99 percent of schools — 1,691 schools out of 1,701 — reported their networks were test-ready compared with spring 2014 when just over 88 percent reported adequate bandwidth.

About 90 percent of schools reported having enough devices to give the test online, compared to slightly more than 60 percent in 2014.

State Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen praised the progress.

“One of the reasons the new test will be successful is we have made improvements as a state in our online readiness,” she said.

In Shelby County Schools, one of the largest and poorest districts in the state, 62.3 percent of schools report having enough computers; at least one per six students is the state’s recommendation. A third of schools have less.

The state report did not say which schools are deficient.

But SCS says the state report is not up-to-date.

“Shelby County Schools has ordered the necessary number of devices due to arrive in mid-October,” a spokesman said, adding that the district has been “diligent” in providing the state updates on its progress, “including the fact that we have purchased enough devices to meet the minimum requirements.”

To have sufficient network, schools must have bandwidth of 50 kilobytes per second. The minimal requirement is 10 kilobytes. Anything less is considered inadequate.

One percent of SCS’s network falls into the inadequate or unknown category.

The municipal school districts report being in better shape, although Bartlett City Schools also says it reported the purchase of 3,000 laptops that were not reflected in the report.

“We could not purchase devices until after July 1,” said Lee-Ann Kight, head of teaching and instruction.

According to the state report, Bartlett has 81.8 percent of devices needed to administer the test. Nearly 20 percent of its schools are considered inadequately equipped.

The state began the survey last year. In the spring and summer, districts were asked to update their progress through a portal that would allow them to report in real time.

“I believe a couple of districts were waiting to update their numbers until new devices actually arrived. Some were waiting for orders,” said Ashley Ball, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.

The state has been working toward an online test for nearly five years. Last winter, the state’s online platform crashed when thousands of students tried to access it to complete a trial test online.

“This is the first year of a new test, and we know there will be hiccups, but we are doing everything we can to troubleshoot challenges now,” McQueen said.

The 10 percent of schools reporting an inadequate number of devices so far have not requested permission from the state to give a paper-and-pencil test, she said.

“They have indicated they are committed to problem-solving and developing a plan for online administration.”

On Oct. 1, the state will test the online platform, giving it time to identify challenges “when there is still time to fix them,” McQueen said.

The department has also developed a scheduling and logistics task force to support districts as they develop testing schedules.

The tests will be given in two phases this year instead of at once in the spring.

McQueen said that the state’s 2014 budget for schools included $51 million for technology advances. She also said the state school funding formula annually includes $20 million for technology or other instructional purposes.

©2015 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.