HUDSON — After years of talk, the Florida Department of Education plans to begin moving FCAT testing to computers in the spring.
Hudson High School isn't ready yet.
Built in 1973, the school lacks enough computers with enough memory to handle the testing software. Some wiring needs upgrades. Its classroom setup does not lend itself easily to secure computerized exams for hundreds of students.
"Obviously, we are not a new school. So we had to look at the capacity we have," principal Dave LaRoche said. "We have had to work real hard here at Hudson."
A state assessment of every Florida school's ability to administer on computers the 10th-grade math FCAT, as well as the new algebra end-of-course test, revealed that Hudson and River Ridge high schools and five alternative and charter programs missed the mark.
That result comes after about three years of preparations for computerized testing. Pasco officials convened a committee to examine the needs back in 2007, when it was thought that students in the fifth, eighth and ninth grades would be taking the FCAT online in 2010, with three more grade levels added in 2011.
Peggy Jones, the district director of research and evaluation, said the effort has yielded positive results. The district has made progress in upgrading school technology for testing, including the addition of modern computers and wireless networking.
But more work remains.
To meet the goal of having one up-to-date computer for every four high school students, the district plans to use $1.5 million of its federal Race to the Top grant funds, spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said. The upgrades should be in place by December, she said.
That's when the district will participate in a statewide FCAT simulation to check the system's ability to handle thousands of students simultaneously taking the test.
The goal is to ensure no failures similar to what happened when the state launched its computerized reading test, called FAIR. Limited bandwidth caused major access problems for schools across Florida, prompting several changes at the state level.
One result was the move away from testing over the Internet, and instead moving to computer-based software that holds the test. Schools then download finished exams to a proctor computer, from which they are sent to the Department of Education.
Schools' experiences with FAIR, as well as other computer-based assessments, have helped acclimate students to this new wave of testing without paper and pencil, Hudson principal LaRoche said.
Still, he acknowledged, the change does add a layer of anxiety to a system that has become familiar to students. Teachers and administrators worry about system crashes, power outages and the like, in addition to the usual nervousness.
The FCAT remains a high stakes test, said Ray Bonti, principal of Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel. If kids haven't taken it on the computer before, it could have a negative effect on a school's ratings, which matter for funding and oversight purposes, he said.
"We're going to work through it, but we certainly have a lot of concerns with this whole process," Bonti said.
He noted that the switch to computers will force the school to stretch out its testing periods, because there's no way the school can have everyone on a computer at the same time.
"What are the other kids doing who aren't testing?" he wondered. "You can't have a room doing FCAT and the room to the left and to the right doing normal activities. There would be too many distractions."
Schools also need to review test security procedures, evaluation director Jones added. This includes setting up seating arrangements to keep students from seeing each other's screens, and making sure the Internet isn't available for cheating, among other things.
"We're in the process of still doing that," Jones said.
Working with the district, a school-based planning team has gotten Hudson High to a place where it hopes to be ready to test 300 sophomores in the spring.
"We have some really good plans in place to make it happen, hopefully without a hitch," LaRoche said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.