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Ready, set ... California schools finally start new computer test this week

Students type on computers.
Students type on computers.
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For the next 10 weeks, California students will embark on that dreaded annual rite of passage: the standardized test.

But this year, they won't need their number 2 pencils.

Test will be given on computer for the first time this year - and school districts and the test provider have been scrambling to get ready. The tests were supposed to start last week, but were put off at the last minute.

The new Common Core tests are one of the biggest transitions in state public education in recent memory. California schools have spent nearly two years preparing for this moment: buying computers, upgrading internet access and in some cases hiring extra IT workers.

But parents shouldn't worry too much. Results this year don't count for schools or kids.

“There will be no scores this year,” said Deb Sigman of the California Department of Education.

This year in California, it's really the test that's being tested: Will servers crash? Do the questions accurately gauge skills?

Students will only have to take half the English and half the math test this spring. Officials with the federal Department of Education approved that plan a little over a week ago.

“During the Academy Awards, when they tweeted that photo of themselves, the Twitter site crashed,” said Kati Krumpe, Assistant Superintendent at the 6,700-student Culver City Unified. She's worried the testing company's servers won't be able to handle the load of California's roughly 3 million students, even though the testing will be spread out over many weeks.

Officials with the Smarter Balanced consortium, which is overseeing the testing, said their computer servers are ready.

They weren't quite ready for the start of the test's official testing window on March 18. The Friday before, the consortium delayed the start after contractors asked for a more thorough testing of the massive system that will handle the online examinations from thousands of classrooms. California isn't the only state testing - 22 states will be using the Smarter Balanced test this Spring.

Schools in the Los Angeles Unified, Hacienda-La Puente Unified, and Capistrano Unified districts were meant to start last week and will start testing this week. Other districts have staggered their start dates until April 28. Even within districts, testing days can be different for different schools.

The Hawthorne School District is pumped up to take the new tests.

“We’re all like players in the football game," said Gil Mara, director of technology for the 9,000-student district. "We’re in the locker room, waiting until they let us out in the field and let us perform." He said he's tested wifi connections and hired new technology workers for each school. He also bought dozens of new Chromebooks, which he said are ideal for testing.

The money for all that came from his district’s share of $1.25 billion the state gave schools to prepare for the Common Core. California provided $200 per student. Many districts used the funds for technology upgrades.

Wiseburn School District Superintendent Tom Johnstone said he's worried test results will be skewed for kids who don't work on computers all the time. He said too many of his students are typing with two fingers and taking a long time to drag and drop.

"The technology shouldn't be a factor, a negative impact," he said.

Next year the test scores will be official. Many students already began getting Common Core-aligned lessons this year. The new standards boast better communication, problem solving and critical thinking skills.

“It’s a big shift, a big change. I think a shift that folks have been waiting for a very long time,” said Palmdale School District Superintendent Pauline Winbush.

She spent $420,000 on books, novels, and other Common Core-aligned materials for her 19,000 student school district.