As the end of each school year draws near, the majority of America’s public school students prepare for a common rite of passage: federally-required annual testing. Today, students are less likely to encounter paper-based tests, since most use computers or tablets to take their assessments online. As states turn to online testing to measure and track students’ annual academic progress, every district is working to make sure its schools meet a minimum bar for broadband—high-speed Internet service most often provided through a wired connection—in order to administer these tests.
State-mandated online assessment may just be the push that finally brings every public school online. But the pull for districts to connect all schools with high-speed Internet extends well beyond testing: it could and should lead to access to online learning for all students.
Broadband connects students to learning opportunities that were previously unreachable. New digital tools are not only providing more responsive assessments, but these tools are also helping educators personalize content and instruction for their students.
Unfortunately, as school districts look to increase their online services for teachers and students, they are often confronted with limited federal and state financial support, aging broadband infrastructure that cannot support higher speeds, and insufficient guidance on planning for future use. Our public schools will not be able to provide all students with equitable access to learning if state and national education leaders do not help districts address these challenges.
The Commonwealth of Virginia provides a clear illustration of the challenges districts face—as well as how federal and state education leaders can offer support. Virginia began building out high-speed Internet access across all schools to enable online testing a full decade earlier than many states, rolling out new digital assessments at the high school level in 2004, and then slowly expanding to middle and elementary schools. The state push for online assessment—coupled with requirements for broadband and device access— ensured that all of its “divisions” (Virginia’s term for districts) were connected.
But as divisions like Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) learned, the step from online assessment to online learning is more of a leap. Over more than a decade working to leverage technology investments to support teaching and learning, ACPS navigated a rapidly changing landscape of devices and tools. Division leaders learned for themselves the value of including teacher and student voices in technology decision making. And ACPS has continued to look for ways to monitor and evaluate network performance to ensure these investments are working for teachers and students.
This case study takes an in-depth look at Virginia’s experience over more than two decades as it has grappled with the infrastructure, resources, and supports needed for online testing and learning. It explores how and why the commonwealth has prioritized infrastructure investment and upgrades, as well as the impact those decisions have had on teaching and learning. Virginia’s story sheds light on how advances are made—and the work that still needs to be done.
New America's Open Technology Institute released an accompanying report—a pilot project intended to be a prototype toolkit to address the need for classroom level speed data, and which can be extended and improved through future collaboration with relevant communities of interest.