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Using an iPad as a Calculator on a State Assessment: Dreams Do Come True

ipad scantronToday marked a hallmark day in the Eanes Independent School District when it comes to high-stakes testing. After some back and forth with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the commissioner, last spring we were granted the ability to pilot using iPads as graphing calculators during the state assessment.  Following months of planning and prep, the dreams of using iPads on actual state assessments became a reality today as 600+ students took their 8th Grade Math STAAR assessment.  This decision and process encompassed many hours of careful planning and practice before today’s big test.  As far as I know from colleagues around the country, we were the first district to try this approach. As such, I’m writing this post to not only document our process but also to help others that may try this in the future.

Why calculators?

For years (and decades) our students have had the ability to purchase an expensive graphing calculator like the TI-84 plus to help them with higher level math problems and classes.  This calculator retails at around $180 (roughly half the cost of our iPad2s) and is purchased by either the campus or the parents to support their students taking these courses.  With the constant financial pressure and underfunding from our state and the fact that every student has an iPad, we decided to formally request that we be allowed to use the Desmos Test Mode app (FREE) on the 8th Grade Math assessment.  With the successful completion of this pilot, we may even look at other areas (dictionaries?) where we can save money and provide a better experience for our students.

What kind of technical expertise do you need to pull this off?

Our district utilizes a Mobile Device Management (MDM) system known as Casper Suite by JAMF software. Casper includes a feature called “Focus” which allows teachers to lock students into a certain app.  Students are not able to use the camera, take a screen shot or even get out of the app until the teacher releases them from focus. With the assistance of our technology department and Mobile Integration Specialist Tim Yenca, we have been piloting this feature in individual classrooms throughout the fall and spring.  However, on testing day we knew it would mean putting all 600 of the students into one giant class and then locking them down.  Needless to say, there’s a lot that can go wrong technically with that so we decided to test it a couple of times before the actual testing date.

How did we prepare for this?

This plan would have never been possible without the support of our tremendously talented campus Educational Technologists (Ed Techs).  Running two tests simultaneously with a 12-mile gap in between campuses meant that there needed to be a point person on the ground that coordinated everything. Kacy Mitchell at WRMS and Jennifer Flood  at HCMS provided plans, organized teachers, communicated with students and supported the administration during this entire process.  When I asked Kacy how she thought the day went this was her reaction:

“We knew there were going to be issues. There are always issues. Pioneering the concept of locking down district-issued student iPads was pretty scary for most of us at first. My principal even wondered aloud what my heart-rate was about 5 minutes after the bell rang today. In the end, everything turned out just fine. A successful execution of plans A, B and sometimes C was due to careful planning and LOTS of patience from our teachers. “

Jennifer added this insight into the planning process:

“Leading up to today we held two tests of the system in as close to “day of” testing environments as possible.  Having WRMS attempt at the same time gave us more room to experiment with start times and classroom processes than we would have normally had. Between the tests at both campuses, and many conversations walking through all possibilities, our plans reflected every possible outcome that we had some control over.”

I honestly don’t think we could have pulled this off without these two Ed Techs providing daily support on their campuses.  We are lucky to have them here at Eanes ISD.

What about the app?

When the TEA released their revised policy in spring of 2014, they didn’t specify which device or app was required.  Their main concerns were that whatever device used has to be locked down so that students can’t get on the internet or take photos of the test.  The graphing calculator app needed to be a non-CAS (Computer Algebra Systems) calculator and could not contain tutorials or places for storing formulas (which can be a problem with TI calculators).

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 5.14.17 PM

Graphing Calculator TEST mode app by Desmos

With the help and advice of resident math guru Cathy Yenca (aka Mathy Cathy), we had been looking into the original Desmos graphing calculator app.  The only problem was the app has CAS capability and stores some examples that students could potentially use.  Cathy and Tim (aka “the Flying Yencas”) were able to work with Eli from Desmos on some feature requests and changes that would be necessary to make the app acceptable for state testing.  Desmos was extremely responsive and open to the changes and after working on some test pilots of the app, released the “Test Mode” version of their app free to the public.  Much like the support of Kacy and Jennifer, this wouldn’t have been possible without the Yencas and Desmos working together to make it happen.

TESTING DAY 

With the support of the team, the administration, the teachers and the technology department, we set forth today to make this plan a reality.  Through all the collaboration and discussion with the team it was determined that we should have both a few regular calculator back-ups on hand and a few iPad back-ups on hand already locked into the app.

As with anything involving technology there are always problems.  Those problems multiply when you try to lock down 600 devices over wireless on two separate campuses at the same time.  Add to the mix a third campus (elementary) and four 5th grade students in advanced math taking this test too, and this process became even more complex.  Thanks to our Ed Tech Margie Brown for helping get those elementary students set up on testing day as well.

Despite our best efforts, a handful of students showed up this morning and decided to update their iPad.  A couple of others forgot to plug their iPad in over the weekend.  The forethought and planning of our Ed Techs and technology department accounted for this and a few spare iPads were on hand in the hallways where the tests we being administrated.  Students that couldn’t didn’t get locked down were given a locked down spare before the test. Students that brought their own iPad were put into Guided Access mode by the teacher prior to the test. Teachers in testing rooms were given a “blue card” that they could slide under their door if they had technical issues during the actual test (thankfully, none of them did).

Final Thoughts

As you can tell, it takes an entire team of thoughtful and prepared staff to pull this kind of a pilot off.  I knew today was a success when I looked up at noon and noted how quiet the day had been.  That’s a tribute to the hard working people in this district like Kacy, Tim, Jennifer, Margie, our technology department, our testing coordinators, teachers, STEM Director and those outside of the district like Eli from Desmos. Without their collaboration and planning this dream could have quickly turned into a nightmare.

Thank you all for your effort in taking on this monumental challenge!  Now on to the next!

A Whole New World of Apps (for the Under 13 Generation)

Green PG-13_Hv_CS3As students fill the hallways of our schools on their first day back, there is a major change afoot for those kids under the age of 13.  Students in the pre-teen realm have always had less options when it came to personalization and use of certain websites/social media.  While some of those rules still apply when it comes to the web, Apple’s new system of allowing districts to issue Apple IDs for those students under the age of 13 (with parental consent) means that the days of every elementary students having the same standardized iPad are in the past.  Combining that with the new deployment system and (in our case) an MDM like Casper, and we are finally starting to see some of the real powerful potential of the 1:1 iPad platform.  While I know there will be some glitches (there always are in technology), I’m looking forward to the improvements listed here this year for our K-6 students.

App Provisioning

For the past 2 years, our elementary students have been living in the 1:1 world when it comes to devices, but haven’t really gotten the full-fledged personalized experience of their older counter-parts when it comes to apps.  Because we couldn’t have individual Apple IDs on each iPad, we used Apple Configurator to provision “images” to sets of iPads at every grade level. This was a painfully arduous process that entailed having a Support Tech go classroom to classroom with a Macbook and provision the images to each iPad.  With the amount of time and man-power it took to accomplish this, we basically had time for one app-refresh cycle every year.  Besides the inefficiency of this model, we also had several times when iPads would get “hung up” during app refresh and have to be completely wiped, losing important student work that hadn’t been backed up.  Now that every student will have an Apple ID, we can “push” apps out to students over the air (OTA).  If a classroom wants an app, they contact our MDM campus manager who loads the app and pushes it out to the class overnight.  If it’s a free app, the kids can even download it themselves!

App Personalization

Since we basically had two groups (K-2 and 3-5), that meant front-loading the images with pretty much every app we would think to use for the school year.  The resulting images were somewhat heavy (taking up over 6GB of the 16GB space) and many were unnecessary depending on your grade.  Here’s our example list of apps for elementary last year. You could have 3rd graders looking at 5th grade apps that they didn’t even need. While we’ve really focused on productive apps vs. consumptive ones, we at least knew that all kids would have the tools they needed to create a finished product.  Now that we can now push apps over the air, that means starting with a much leaner set of core apps to start (nearly all “productive” apps) and adding those content or grade-level based consumptive apps as needed.  One drawback of not having a set image on them is that iPads are essentially naked to begin the year until the students have their Apple IDs set up.  Enter the always clever Janet Couvillion. She’s an Ed Tech at one of our elementary campuses and she created this tremendous Thinglink about all things you can do on an iPad with only basic apps:

Content Distribution

We utilize eBackpack as our web-based and app-based content distribution system.  However, we’ve also found some successes using iTunesU at the upper grades when it comes to quickly creating courses for students.  Now that our students under the age of 13 have Apple IDs, we can have them enroll in a class course at the beginning of the year that a teacher can use to push out content as it becomes relevant. We can also provision specific iBooks or class sets of iBooks to students based on their Apple IDs, something not possible in the past.

Time to Focus

Another potential bonus of all of this is the new Casper Focus feature we had a kindergarten teacher test for us last year.  With all iPads in this new system and each student with an Apple ID, a teacher can now “control” or “lock-down” all the iPads in his/her class into a specific app.  While I’m not a big fan of the lock-down control model when it comes to teaching and learning, I do know there is a time and place when this might need to happen from time to time.  With state and national testing moving to an online platform, we’ll need to have this ability going forward.  This year we’ll be pilot testing the ACT Aspire test on iPads for students in grades 4-9 and we’ll also be piloting using a Desmos Calculator app during our 8th Grade Algebra State assessment.  None of this would be possible without this new system in place without individually going to each iPad and enabling Guided Access.

Parent Involvement

In order to make this system work, we have to really rely on parent support.  They have to go through the online consent and Apple ID creation process for us to be able to utilize all the advantages listed above.  As a parent, the advantages to this program versus making your own Apple ID are many (here’s a Parent Guide from Apple).  They’ll be able see what apps their students are purchasing.  With their students being in the Under 13 program they’ll have less advertisements and data mining to worry about.  As a parent of a new kindergarten student, I was excited to not only set up her Apple ID because we can now mirror the apps she’s getting at school and put them on our devices at home to help with her learning.  I’ve always been a believer in the concept of a village raising the child and in our ever-increasing online world, the lines between home and school are no longer clearly defined.  This process gives us as a district another opportunity to communicate about the education of their child, which can in the end only be a good thing.

To help introduce parents to this process I made this somewhat silly 3.5 minute video (below) along with some instructions for them on their end.

 The future is bright and no longer just for those born before 2001!