WHAT WE HAVE
Here is an inventory of computing devices in Hamilton County Schools that officials believe could be used for student testing.
Source: County schools' Information Technology Department
Hamilton County Schools officials hope to put iPads in the hands of all 42,000 of its students over the next few years.
Administrators are exploring funding options for a massive technology buy to help bring the district up to speed by 2014, when all Tennessee school districts will have to complete state assessments online.
That means schools will have to upgrade computers, tablets and their technological infrastructure by then to support online tests. And depending on just how out of date schools are, the cost could amount to hundreds of millions statewide.
Hamilton County officials' estimates already top $10 million.
"It will be a scary number, but we can phase it in," said Superintendent Rick Smith. Especially if state lawmakers will pitch in.
"We need the state to step up and help with this," he said.
The Tennessee Department of Education has announced no plans to help local districts pay for the transition. So local officials hope the General Assembly will start to appropriate money as school districts look to upgrade.
Aside from new equipment, districts also will have to consider school network upgrades, the cost of training staff and the extra work of supporting so many more devices than are already online. And districts will have to put in place plans for constant replacement and upgrades as the new computers and tablets become outdated.
Hamilton County schools now have just under 7,000 laptops, desktops and tablets that administrators think could be used for tests. Those numbers don't include all devices, such as solitary classroom desktops that wouldn't work for testing. But it's not clear just how many devices school systems will need.
That's because the organization overseeing the new tests, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC, hasn't released all its requirements, such as how long testing windows will last.
New gear, new tests
When they do start making purchases, officials shouldn't buy technology just to have it for the test, said Richard Charlesworth, chief information officer for the state education department. He said administrators should buy equipment they think will best enhance classroom learning.
"It's a lot less about the devices and more about supporting and empowering instruction," he said.
Charlesworth said most laptops, desktops and tablets bought within the last four years should work for the tests.
The new online tests also will move beyond the standard multiple-choice questions, allowing an interactive assessment for students.
"It completely changes the paradigm," Charlesworth said.
Smith said while it's likely computers or tablets would work, the district is looking at bringing in iPads. Starting with middle and high school students, Smith said he would like eventually for every student to have access to a tablet.
Older students might have individual iPads, he said, while the elementary grades might have classroom sets.
But he noted that the county's technological infrastructure will also need massive updates to support thousands of new devices. Fewer than half of schools now have wireless capability, and bandwidth will have to be improved, he said.
From whose wallet?
To school board member David Testerman, the millions needed in Hamilton County alone amount to just another unfunded mandate by the state. While everyone agrees the technology is beneficial, he said no one wants to talk about where the money is to come from.
Testerman, a retired principal, said funding woes have never made it possible for the education field to be on the leading edge of technology.
"When you say behind, that's a relative term," he said. "Is there any school system in this state that's up to date with brand-new equipment? No, it doesn't happen."
Still, Testerman said the relatively affordable prices of devices like iPads, Nooks and Kindles have made it more possible than ever to give each child access to the technology.
When that happens, learning moves from being teacher-directed to being led by students, said Tony Donen, principal of Hamilton County's science, technology, engineering and math school, which purchased iPads for all 75 students in the school's inaugural freshman class this fall.
Donen said iPads move learning beyond the classroom, with students doing all of their research, organization, communication and learning from a single device.
"The student uses that piece to do virtually all of their work," Donen said. "We want the information to be in the students' hands and them to be in control."