Districts dig deep, borrow to buy technology needed for Common Core exam.

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Curtains make do as doors and lockers form walls of makeshift classrooms inside cramped, cash-strapped DeKalb Middle School in the wooded hills of the Upper Cumberland region.

But there's no way to jury-rig what the school really needs: Chromebook computers, updated software and bandwidth.

Like all local school districts in Tennessee, DeKalb County schools are preparing for new computerized testing that aligns with Common Core academic standards, which have phased into the state's classrooms in recent years. Right now, the 600 students at the county's middle school — a 1970s "open-space" building in Smithville — take turns to use a single computer lab with just 30 computers, about 70 shy of what is needed. Above the building's ceiling tiles, adequate wiring and switches to handle the upgrades are still lacking.

A $200,000 boost last year from the state helped, but additional needs for the district's five schools top $320,000. That's a big ticket in the county of fewer than 20,000 people.

"If it were to be prolonged for another year, that would be good," DeKalb superintendent Mark Willoughby said of the launch of the new test called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. "But it's going to be a problem in another year also."

He called it an "unfunded mandate" and is unsure whether DeKalb County schools will be tech-ready by the fall.

Tennessee school districts are digging deep into their pockets — or, in some cases, borrowing — to make sure computers are in hand and up to snuff for the 2014-15 shift to PARCC. Some systems are ready as others race to get there. Metro Nashville this month opted to float bonds instead of tapping reserves to cover $6 million for new technology, though it still covets an additional $7 million for teacher-training tools.

Price tags are decidedly lower at rural districts, but so are revenue bases. Rural school leaders say they're taking a greater financial hit as a result. Even those on track for the upgrades point to sacrifices to get there.

In Humphreys County, superintendent Jimmy Long said he believes schools are in position to take the PARCC test electronically next year after a recent purchase of 400 computers. The technology came at a cost: The district dipped into its reserves for $150,000 and put off addressing bus needs.

"I'm concerned that students have not had adequate preparation on the equipment because we're just now getting a lot of the labs in," Long said.

Costlier, more rigorous

Common Core, which 44 other states also have adopted, was approved in Tennessee in 2010. The PARCC test itself in Tennessee carries a cost of $21 million to $25 million per year compared with $20 million for the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, which it is set to replace. The PARCC version, which will allow state-by-state performance comparisons, is billed as more rigorous and interactive. It features new writing, speaking and listening components. In math, students are asked to show how they worked out problems instead of just choosing an answer.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said he believes most Tennessee schools will be equipped to take the PARCC test on computers next year. He said the department doesn't have an estimate on how much it will cost to become tech-ready.

In Maryland, a state similarly sized in population, education officials have estimated it will cost more than $100 million to become tech-ready.

Gov. Bill Haslam last year infused $51 million for new technology across the state on top of funds districts receive each year for that purpose. In addition, some low-income schools are eligible for a federal program that reimburses most technology costs. Needs still remain, however.

The Tennessee Department of Education has agreed to allow districts to take the test on pencil and paper for one year, but they would have to become compliant after that.

State officials stress that the purpose of technology upgrades isn't just testing but to more effectively educate kids.

"The reality is that the world is moving to an online world," Huffman said. "We're a few years away from not having paper-pencil assessments.

"We've had lots of time to get ready for it, and we've provided probably better resources to teachers and principals in Tennessee than any other state in the country. I feel good about the direction we're heading."

Bills would delay testing

Technology costs are part of the argument made by tea party and conservative state lawmakers who have introduced bills to delay PARCC testing and roll back Common Core. On top of those, Rep. Billy Spivey, R-Lewisburg, has filed long-shot legislation, House Bill 2290, that would require the state to reimburse local systems for expenses incurred to implement the PARCC test.

"These rural districts just take it on the chin," Spivey said.

But Clint Satterfield, superintendent of Trousdale County Schools, believes his district has managed just fine, though it had to spend $500,000 on new equipment.

"We were told three years ago that we were going to move to online testing," Satterfield said. "We have gradually upgraded our technology to where we feel like we're in really good shape."

Others still need to make progress. Mike Martin, director of tiny Van Buren County Schools, a district with 730 students and two schools, anticipates buying 40 more computers. He said infrastructure to build network connectivity, though, has been the most challenging.

"There's a lot of things that we're concerned about," Martin said, emphasizing that the district hopes to use computers for PARCC during the 2014-15 year. He also wants to be assured students themselves are ready to shift to online tests.

Meanwhile, school officials in DeKalb County fear their children will be at a disadvantage if they have to use paper tests this year compared with children at districts with laptops and tablets.

"We can't be handed a task without giving us the (equipment)," DeKalb Middle School assistant principal Mandy Dakas said. "We can't do it without the funding."

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