Early adopters praise computer-based testing

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • July 24, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

An estimated 28,000 elementary and middle school students in nearly 200 schools around New York took their state math and English language arts tests on computers this spring, and officials in those districts said their students took to the new format with ease.

This is first year that computer-based test (CBT) scores will count toward statewide grade 3-8 test results.

"It went extremely well," said Lisa Mato, director of special programs and data reporting for the Longwood school district on Long Island, where about half the students who took the ELA tests for grades 3, 5 and 7 in selected schools used computers. "I was really apprehensive about the long and short responses and how long that was going to take, but they were just fine."

"Honestly, the kids are ready for this," said Newcomb Superintendent Clark "Skip" Hults. "We did our field testing last year, and it went so well that we decided to go all-in this year."

In Newcomb, a single-building district in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, students in every grade took both the ELA and math tests on computers "with no hiccups, whatsoever," said Chris Fisher, director of curriculum and special education.

Hultz said the district wasn't worried about having sufficient bandwidth or hardware, but district leaders did take one old-school precaution. They switched the building's electrical power over to a backup generator during the exams because that was the best way to avoid the possibility of a power interruption.

"Our electricity goes out more than any place else I've ever been in New York," Hultz explained.

In Ithaca, every grade 3-8 student took a computer-based test. Statewide tallies provided by the State Education Department suggest that Ithaca had the most extensive CBT participation of any New York school district this year.

"We went all-in, districtwide," said Ithaca Superintendent Luvelle Brown. He estimated that 3,000 students in 10 school buildings took the state tests using a computer.

"I would struggle to find reasons not to do it," he said. "We feel it's a better model and approach. It's a skill that all our young people should have."

At another district in the Finger Lakes, Auburn, fifth graders took the math and ELA tests on computers this year, and the hope for next year is to administer the computerized tests to both fifth and sixth graders, said Dennis Taylor, director of instruction.

A lack of computers and other technological resources limits the district's ability to make a faster transition, Taylor said. He said a plan to ramp up investment using money from the Smart Schools Bond Act should help. "Our district is still behind other districts, but we are making progress," he said.

Before districts were approved for operational CBT, they had to meet State Education Department standards for technological capacity, including available devices and bandwidth.

"Some schools weren't ready, and we had to tell them that," Deputy Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green told the Regents in May. "We want to be cautious, and we want to work with people who are ready, technologically."

Staff from SED and Questar, the state's test vendor, also did "road shows" in advance of testing dates to help teachers and technology coordinators prepare. The tests offer a variety of computer functions, including a "highlighter," a "notepad" and other tools that help make the exam feel more like a pen-and-paper test.

The target year for administering all grades 3-8 state tests via computer is 2020.

State figures show that approximately 84 school districts administered live ELA tests via computer to students in some or all of their grades this year. Another 16 local agencies, including Catholic dioceses, charter operators and other private educational organizations also participated in computerized testing for ELA.

Computer-based testing for math was less popular. Some 78 school districts, dioceses and other local education organizations were on the list of those who administered math tests by computer.

Longwood was among districts that took a pass on the computer-based math tests this year.

"We're holding back on the math because, when we looked at the samplers, we were not happy with the tools they had, and we just weren't sure how students were going to show their work when they were typing it all," Mato said.

In Newcomb, the district addressed that issue by allowing students to show their work on a sheet of paper, Hultz said. Taylor said Auburn might try something like that next year.

"The equation editor in the math test was the most difficult piece," Taylor said. "(It) isn't terrible, but it's not something students use on a daily basis, and I don't want to teach them a tool just for a test."

Computers were used in all types of districts - rural, suburban and urban. A notable number of the state's computer testing trail-blazers are located in rural pockets of northern and western New York. Areas with lighter participation included Long Island and the Hudson Valley, where test refusals have been high.

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