New Jersey’s K-12 public schools are faced with new challenges for the 2014-2015 school year with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments.

PARCC assessments are based on the Common Core State Standards and require computers with Internet access. The PARCC assessments offer an interactive and media-rich testing and instructional platform for students who often learn and play in today’s digital age. For years education leaders and technology personnel have been improving and expanding technology for instruction, assessment and administration. But they now have more specific guidelines to prepare for.

There are detailed guidelines given by PARCC for minimum and recommended technology requirements, which are updated regularly and posted on PARCC’s technology website. These guidelines give schools options on what technology platform should be used to proctor assessments and challenge schools to create a computer-based assessment technology strategy for their district. Since the announcement of the PARCC assessments, there have been many changes and updates to these requirements and recommendations. These requirements will continue to change as new technology is released and as computer security threats are addressed. A sound strategy would consider the short and long term, be flexible, yet secure, and best align the PARCC readiness investment with other district technology goals.

PARCC assessment needs can be broken down into two major tech requirements: Hardware platforms for students to take the tests on, and network/Internet bandwidth to handle the number of students taking the test simultaneously. On its website, PARCC provides an interactive “Assessment Capacity Planning Tool” that will help districts work out the number of testing platforms and bandwidth they would need for their particular testing scenarios.

More than 1 million students, including many New Jersey schools are administering the Spring 2014 PARCC field test. This is a chance to test and demonstrate the online platform and operational procedures in preparation for the actual PARCC assessments in spring 2015. This is a great chance to assess current abilities and needs and make plans for technology projects. Districts not selected for the field test can still benefit by communicating with those districts participating about their findings and experiences.

To understand what hardware platform is right for schools, it’s best to know more about how the assessment is delivered to students. PARCC assessments are web-based and hosted by PearsonAccess, using Pearson’s TestNav online engine. TestNav is a test delivery method which has been used for years by healthcare providers, law enforcement and schools around the country. TestNav has specific technology requirements for the testing endpoint to ensure a functioning and secure test environment. TestNav runs on a commonly used programming platform called Java. When using TestNav, it runs a system check which analyzes the endpoint. Each endpoint choice has different requirements, but the system check is looking for three major requirements: operating system (O/S), Internet browser version and Java environment. The only exceptions to the Java requirement are tablets and Chromebooks. Currently there are downloadable apps for Chrome OS and iPad, with Android apps most likely arriving by the summer or fall of 2014. PARCC provides TestNav SystemCheck over the Internet for administrators to test their endpoints at any time.

Test-Taking Devices

There are various endpoint choices for the computer-based assessments, including personal computers, laptops and tablets. The selection of the testing endpoint is dependent on being able to provide a secure testing environment and meeting TestNav’s technical requirements, as well as the school districts’ preferences and existing equipment. Windows-based PCs and laptops, Mac desktops and laptops, tablets such as iPad, Android and Windows Surface and Chromebooks are all valid choices for endpoints. There are considerations outside the requirements outlined by PARCC, such as which Microsoft Windows operating system to run on desktops or laptops. As of March 2014, Microsoft Windows XP is supported by PARCC but will not be supported by Microsoft after April 8. This presents a serious security flaw that could compromise the testing platform, and should be considered when assessing the district’s current plan for desktops.

Districts planning on using tablets should consider that they will need to use wired or Bluetooth keyboards for assessments. On tablets, typing utilizes an onscreen keyboard, which obscures sometimes half of the screen, an occurrence that can hinder the assessment. Settings and security have to be set manually as the TestNav SystemCheck tool cannot run.

The Bandwidth Question

The second major requirement for PARCC is bandwidth, namely Internet bandwidth and network bandwidth. Internet bandwidth is a measure of how much data can be pushed simultaneously from the Internet to the school and vice-versa. Commonly measured in Megabits per second (Mb/s or “Megs”) districts will use this measurement to assess how many students can test simultaneously or how much more Internet bandwidth they need to provide. Network bandwidth is a measure of how much data can be moved between schools in a district or between the data center and data facilities (commonly referred as MDFs/IDFs) in a school. This network bandwidth is also measured in Mb/s and sometimes Gigabits per second (Gb/s).

Many districts have been increasing their Internet bandwidth in recent years to keep up with the media-rich instructional tools available today. PARCC recognizes that this bandwidth is not just for use with assessments, but for instruction, administration and other district activities. With these considerations in mind, PARCC recommends 100 kilobits per second (kbps) per student. What this means is for example a school with a 50Mb/s Internet connection can proctor 500 simultaneous assessments. This same amount of bandwidth should also be present in the entire path through the school network from the testing location to the Internet. Not every New Jersey district’s network is arranged in the same way, so the layout and design of the school’s network must be evaluated when considering testing locations and to avoid network bottlenecks. Network switches, links, wireless networks and access points should all be considered while planning. The TestNav SystemCheck tool provided by PARCC also includes a simple bandwidth measuring tool from the site where the tool is run.

Districts with limited Internet bandwidth can opt to use “proctor caching” to enable the assessment environment. Proctor caching involves the secure pre-downloading of the test and staging on a computer or multiple computers in the district. These specific computers become the “caching servers” and student endpoints, or testing devices, in the district connect to these caching servers. The test is delivered in an encrypted form to secure it before the assessment begins.

There are some advanced technology solutions for PARCC, including virtual desktops. Many districts have already leveraged virtualization products like VMware to improve services and reduce costs in their data centers. Deploying a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) can have similar benefits and is a great solution for PARCC assessments as well as faculty and administration workstations. Virtual desktops can use existing physical desktop hardware, use laptops or run on “thin clients” for added benefits and savings. Thin clients are lower-cost, low-power usage endpoints made specifically for virtual desktops environments. The Aledo school district in Texas is using VMware’s VDI solution “Horizon View” along with thin clients to deliver PARCC assessments. Brooks Moore, manager of technology services, TexServe at Aledo ISD, notes, “We have a testing image that we can deploy in a matter of minutes – it’s just a few clicks. We can even deploy a test to an iPad. And as soon as the test is over, we can flip the image back to a normal classroom environment almost instantly. Online testing is something that keeps a lot of IT managers up at night, but for us it’s just another Monday morning.” VMware’s VDI solution can be procured by New Jersey schools at a significant savings through the program.

Ian Erikson is a senior solutions architect at Aspire Technology Partners.