Ohio superintendent Stan Heffner spoke to the Cincinnati Enquirer on Thursday and revealed some new evidence that he’s been thinking about how to fund Ohio’s next generation of statewide tests.  The new tests are expected to be launched in three years as part of Ohio’s implementation of the multi-state Common Core curriculum in Math and Language Arts.  The most significant change is that these tests will be delivered completely online, meaning that schools must have the appropriate amount of up-to-date technology to accommodate all of the participating students.  This is required by the state’s decision to change to these new assessments.

Actually, none of this is new information for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).  Ohio was in the planning stages of this change for over a year prior to the official adoption of the test vendor by the State Board of Education in December, 2011.  And as recently as November, our friends at Join The Future revealed that ODE was still in the dark regarding how the large increase in technology would be funded.

But according to Heffner’s conversation with the Enquirer, he’s got a plan.

The new system is expected to cut testing costs for Ohio by a third, Heffner said, money which may go toward reimbursing school districts for computers and equipment for the tests.

Now before you get too excited, please notice that this was more of an idea than a commitment as evidence by Heffner’s insertion of the word “may” in that sentence.

And there’s also reason for us to temper our enthusiasm for Heffner’s proposal given his apparent lack of knowledge surrounding the dollar figures involved.  Either that or he thinks we’re not intelligent enough to know how much this is going to cost.

So let’s take a look at the numbers and see how far off Heffner is, shall we?

First is the state budgeted amounts for the Department of Education for testing.

Because we can’t be certain if Heffner was actually referring to only one of the line items, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and include both amounts for a grand total for testing of $67,836,906.  Heffner believes that one-third of that amount could be saved by the new process and be used to reimburse districts for the cost of computers.

$67,836,906 x 1/3 = $22,612,302 allocated by ODE for district computers and equipment.

Sure, $23 million sounds like a lot of money, but let’s see how close Heffner came to covering the projected cost?

Let’s start with some basic numbers and whittle them down.

The new tests will be required for students in grades 3-11.  Based on last year’s enrollment totals from ODE, that equals a total of 1,217,359 students who will be taking tests.  Currently the high school graduation tests are delivered in a different timeframe than the 3-8 tests, but given the typical setup of grade bands in schools across Ohio, we should experience very little overlap in the ability for those students to share computers.

The harder question has to do with estimating the cost of computers.  Fortunately for all of us, schools across the state have recently been converting from traditional desktop computers to terminal-style “thin-client” model.  A 2007 Associated Press article about the Princeton and Lakota school districts describes them as “a basic laptop that does not contain a hard drive but relies on a network server computer to store memory and run programs.”

In 2010, Gartner, Inc., produced a study that provides us with some pricing details for these thin-client computers for a large school district (with purchasing power): “[The school district] will replace these PCs as they fail, migrating to thin clients where possible, at a cost of $700 per [thin-client], instead of $900 for a new traditional PC.”

Additional costs for network support, including servers and maintenance will vary widely from one district to the next and are not easily estimated to scale for a statewide total.  We’ll be generous and not put Heffner on the hook for these costs (though remember this gift later).

Taking the number of students and multiplying it by the cost of each computer will give us the expected total of purchasing a working computer for each student.

1,217,359 x $700 = $852,151,300

Hmm.  Seems a tad bit higher than Heffner’s number, doesn’t it?  We’re not done tweaking.

Remember that the budgeted number from ODE is annual and we shouldn’t need to purchase these computers every year.  HP reports that the life-cycle of their thin clients is typically five to seven years.  Staying with a generous estimate, we’ll allow a replacement cycle of the full seven years for these to last, meaning we need to divide our total hardware cost by seven.

$852,151,300 / 7 years = $121,735,900 annually

Still too high, right?  Surely some schools already have some working computers, but how many?   eTech Ohio, the state agency dedicated charged with empowering learning through technology, has set a 5:1 student to computer ratio as a guideline for schools.  If every school has been able to fund technology purchases to meet that recommendation, then we can cut another 20% off of our total for pre-existing computers.

$121,735,900 x 80% = $97,388,720 annually

Heffner is still $75 million short in his funding scenario.  Let’s be exceedingly generous and presume that the testing schedule could be adjusted to allow the computers to be shared by equally by two students. (Teachers, can you imagine doubling the current number of testing weeks?)  This adjustment would further cut our calculated number in half:

Our final annual cost: $48,694,360

ODE’s “maybe” budget: $22,612,302

Annual deficit: $26,082,058

It’s fantastic that Superintendent Heffner has finally thrown out a number, but I believe we have legitimate reason for concern when that figure represents less than half of the amount Ohio’s districts will need on an annual basis, especially given our very generous calculations in ODE’s favor.  And remember that our final amount does not include the other associated costs of equipment, technology support personnel, or training for end-users.

I apologize if your head is swimming in the numbers, but we have one fairly large issue to tackle her in wrapping up.  Remember when we did that breakdown to an annual calculation and divided by seven?  That will work once everyone is up to speed for testing which is set to occur in only THREE years.  And that budgeted money that we pretended that Stan Heffner had the authority to reallocate without talking to Governor Kasich?  Well, Ohio is still engaged in the current testing until the new assessments are rolled out, so there is no “extra” money until the new tests begin.  But schools can’t wait until that time to upgrade and purchase enough computers to prepare, meaning that over the next three years schools will have to find money in their already strained budgets to buy the equipment.

How much will Ohio’s school districts be on the hook for to implement the state’s changes?

Re-creating our previous calculations on an accelerated, 3-year schedule gives us the magic number schools will need to find in their local budgets:

$852,151,300 x 80% x 0.5 / 3 years = $113,620,173 per year

So what we really need to hope is that Stan Heffner is lobbying for Governor Kasich to add at least this amount into his education budget for the next three years.  Call me pessimistic, but that’s not a prospect that we should view as very likely.