Patrick Semansky / AP Photo
Monday, March 9, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Next month, Nevada students will set aside their pens and paper to take an online test officials say will give administrators an unprecedented look at how well students are doing in reading and math.
But in many of Nevada’s rural schools, there aren’t enough computers to go around. In many schools that do have the equipment, slow Internet connections mean only a few students can be online at once. Some schools have no access to the Internet at all.
A plan by Gov. Brian Sandoval to spend $50 million to buy computers, improve connectivity and expand classroom technology is expected to make its way through legislative hearings in the coming weeks, and data-storage company Switch is working with districts throughout Nevada to improve their data lines and digital capacities. In the meantime, school districts and the state Department of Education are scrambling to prepare for the rollout of the Web-based Smarter Balanced Assessment, meant to give officials a more in-depth look into students’ understanding of Common Core curriculum.
The new test is computer adaptive, meaning it generates new questions based on students’ incorrect answers to pinpoint exactly which skills they’re struggling with. All students in grades three through eight will take the test this year. To do so, each will need a computer and a reliable Internet connection.
Rural counties in the northeast face the biggest hurdles. There, high-speed broadband comes at a premium.
Two schools in Elko, for example, had nearly 700 students last year and no computers capable of administering the test. A middle school in White Pine County had an average download speed of less than a quarter of a megabyte per second.
Statewide, the average is 37 megabytes per second, according to Ookla, an Internet speed-testing service.
Because of bandwidth limitations, workers at the front desks of some schools can’t even answer phones while students are in the computer lab, state Deputy Superintendent Steven Canavero said.
“The amount of data coming into and out of the school just isn’t big enough,” Canavero said.
Like the previous state assessment, the Criterion Referenced Test, the new test quizzes students on reading and math and takes about eight hours to complete. That’s eight hours of Internet usage per student, multiplied by dozens of students taking it at once.
“Our rural schools don’t have that capability,” said Duane Barton, computer systems manager for Elko County schools. “It’s simply not large enough to handle all that is required for the tests.”
Barton’s district had to buy 900 laptops to prepare for the test but still averages about six students per computer.
In districts where there aren’t enough computers, administrators are drawing up staggered testing schedules and plan to bus students from remote schools to more connected schools hours away to make sure everyone is tested.
“I think we’re going to scoot through,” State Education Technology Coordinator Kim Vidoni said.
Money is the biggest reason technology gaps persist. It costs carriers more to build and maintain networks in hard-to-reach places, and costs are passed on to school districts, which don’t have the budgets to afford them.
Vidoni said a fiber-optic line to schools in Carlin and Spring Creek, about 15 miles from Elko, would cost $1 million to install and $14,000 a month to maintain. In an urban area, similar maintenance costs $6,000 a month, Vidoni said.
Elko abandoned the idea of installing a fiber-optic line because of the cost.
The Clark County School District has had only one school, near Mount Charleston, that encountered problems with Internet connectivity, Assistant Superintendent Leslie Arnold said.
Vidoni and other Department of Education officials now are working to inventory each district’s equipment and technology. Switch is helping state officials identify data bottlenecks, while also undertaking a massive public-private project to improve their systems through a variety of means, including increasing the capacity of their fiber-optic lines or laying new ones. Switch’s goal is to raise the average speed to 1,000 megabytes per second.
Unless the Legislature passes Sandoval’s proposed $50 million spend, rural districts will continue to struggle.
“A lot of schools just don’t have the money to invest in technology,” Vidoni said. “This would level the playing field and bridge the divide.”