Local schools pilot-testing new computer-based exams

By From page A1 | March 01, 2013

Davis students won’t be filling in the bubbles on multiple-choice standardized tests much longer.

Two local schools have participated in pilot testing of new computer-based assessments, as California prepares to switch away from paper-based STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) exams.

The new computer-based assessments — which California hopes to implement statewide by 2014-15 — will include video elements and other enhancements, and some multiple-choice portions of the test will be scored automatically. The new tests also will ask students to read a text, and then type in their response to questions about what they just read.

The Davis School for Independent Study was among the California schools helping to pilot-test the new exams this week. Several DSIS eighth-graders took the math portion of the exam using existing equipment in the DSIS computer lab. Principal Laura Juanitas said the students are so accustomed to using computers that they barely batted an eye when they sat down to try the new online version of the test.

“It’s probably a bigger thing for us (the teachers and administrators) than it is for the kids,” Juanitas said.

“The (new) test is very different than the previous STAR tests,” she continued. “Every question requires a fairly high degree of calculation and computation.”

Upwards of 1,100 schools around the state are taking part in the pilot testing, which began Feb. 20 and will continue through May.

Students at Da Vinci Charter Academy participated in a different pilot test of a computer-based assessment last October. According to Da Vinci Principal Rody Boonchouy, “aside from some minor technical hang-ups, the test went well. Unlike traditional multiple-choice assessments, the students were able to manipulate graphics, watch and analyze animated labs, and move to appropriate test items based on responses. There were also more open-ended responses requiring students to articulate their understanding, as opposed to bubbling one of four choices.”

Da Vinci also has participated in the College and Work Readiness Assessment.

“This spring will be the second year we’ve done this computer-based assessment — the test measures critical thinking and complex problem-solving,” Boonchouy said. “The existing (paper-based) standardized tests are limited in their measures of meaningful student learning.

“If the tests of the future truly measure higher-order thinking and depth of understanding, and how students communicate that understanding, then perhaps they might be tests worth teaching to.”

Associate Superintendent Clark Bryant added that Patwin Elementary is in the planning stages for a pilot test of a computer-based assessment later this spring.

“These pilots give students a chance to interact with these new types of tests,” Bryant said.

Of course, it is one thing to pilot-test the new exams with a small pool of students. But administering a “live” computer-based exam to an entire school would be a lot more complicated, given that schools have different kinds of computers and different generations of software.

Kim Wallace, the district’s recently hired director of instructional technology, said, “As part of the district’s 2013-16 technology plan, we are currently evaluating the number of computers and other devices that meet the Smarter Balanced consortium’s guidelines for computer-based assessments. Once we have an accurate count this spring, we will be able to create a long-term plan to address site technology needs.

“Students and teachers need time to use instructional technologies in their daily lives at school in preparation for how they will eventually be assessed.”

The Smarter Balanced consortium is a multistate group that is developing the computer-based tests with an eye toward implementation of the Common Core academic standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, including California. The implementation of the new academic standards is one of the main factors driving the advent of the computer-based exams.

Principal Juanitas of DSIS described the new Common Core standards as “wonderful … it’s the way teachers have always wanted to teach.”

In all likelihood, when the new computer-based assessments “go live” in 2014, the testing probably will be done in shifts over several weeks, since it is unlikely that schools will have enough computers available for every student to take the exam at the same time. (With the current paper-based tests, an entire school will take the exams in just a few days.)

At the college level, some tests like the Graduate Record Exam are already being administered via computer. But the number of students taking the GRE is very small in comparison with the upwards of 6 million California schoolchildren who are tested annually. A statewide survey conducted last year by the state Department of Education found that California schools had about 600,000 computers and other devices for students — 54 percent of them desktop machines.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said the pilot testing represents “an important step toward our goal of creating a testing system that measures how ready our students are for the challenges of a changing world. The immense interest we are seeing reflects the desire among teachers and administrators for California to move toward assessments focused on improving teaching and learning.”

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.


Jeff Hudson

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