SED rethinks computerized testing, plans phase-in over several years

On Board Online • October 13, 2014

By Eric D. Randall

Last spring, more than 16,000 students in New York State took computer-based tests in a pilot project. This spring, it could be zero.

The State Education Department has slowed down its plan to switch from paper tests to computer-based tests as early as this school year.

New York is part of a multi-state consortium called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), which will be offering online assessments this spring. All PARCC members except New York will be using those assessments, said PARCC spokesman David Connerty-Marin. Participating will be Washington, D.C. and 11 states – Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio and Rhode Island.

Several concerns make waiting a better option, according to Ken Wagner, deputy commissioner for curriculum, assessment and educational technology.

They include:

  • Uncertainty regarding how many New York school districts have the technical capability to use the tests. State efforts to gather such information have been unsuccessful, but will be renewed, Wagner said.
  • Concern that the PARCC tests are too long in duration. Under PARCC’s scheduled test time, every grade level in New York would see an increase in the amount of test time.
  • Desire to see other states’ experience with PARCC tests. “We look forward to learning more about the tests once they release approximately 40 percent of the questions following the operational tests in spring 2015,” Wagner said. This is the only way to be sure about the quality of the assessments, he said.

Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. has publicly stated that he expects all schools in New York to switch from paper tests to computer-based tests at some point.

“The question is not if there will be computer-based testing but when and how,” King told superintendents at the annual fall conference of the state Council of School Superintendents, which was held in Saratoga. He said he anticipated a “phase-in over the next few years.”

The state Board of Regents is expected to discuss its membership in PARCC during 2015-16 before the end of this school year, according to State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman. While state officials haven’t discussed specific options, they conceivably could include dropping out of PARCC and hiring a company to develop computer-based tests for New York.

Along with Kentucky, New York has developed its own Common Core-based tests independent of PARCC and another interstate consortium called Smarter Balanced. That gives New York the more options to meet its obligation under its federal Race to the Top grant to “implement the Common Core summative assessments by the 2014-15 school year.” Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, there is a similar obligation to use tests “aligned with state college- and career-ready standards and that measure growth.”

Wagner said he is interested in having districts gain more experience with computerized testing. But, PARCC hasn’t announced any plans to offer another round of pilot tests.

Overall, “we don’t yet know what the right timeline is for people to administer state assessments online,” Wagner said. He said the state probably will offer paper and computer-based options, and give districts a choice of using either.

A total of 25,000 New York students in 225 schools in 75 districts participated in last spring’s pilot tests; 65 percent took computer-based PARCC tests and the remainder took paper-and-pencil assessments. None of the tests were graded, as the goal was to assess the effectiveness of computerized test administration and field-test questions.

King acknowledged that there were “glitches” in last spring’s pilot tests.

For instance, some students who were used to solving math problems with paper and pencil found it hard to adapt to an online equation editor, according to Wagner. And proctors discovered that exiting the exam was confusing for students, and some needed technical help to restart the exam for the next test session, he said.

Problems of this nature are normal, and overall the results were positive, Wagner told On Board. “People were better prepared than they thought they were.”

Asked what percentage of school districts in New York State currently are technologically capable of implementing computer-based testing, Wagner said, “I don’t have a satisfying answer.” A technical assessment tool developed by Pearson for PARCC was posted on SED’s website for months, but not enough districts used it to yield reliable information. Wagner said the state will try another method to gather this information.

One issue that SED plans to pursue is whether schools have enough Internet bandwidth. According to the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), “By the 2014-15 school year, schools will likely require external Internet connections to their Internet service provider of 100 Mbps (megabytes per second) per 1,000 students and staff.”

Also, schools need to have enough devices on which students can take the computer-based tests (CBTs), such as recently purchased computers or tablets. “It is strongly recommended that CBT-compatible devices be less than five years old at the time they will be used for CBT and other classroom purposes,” according to SETDA’s 2012 report, “Technology Readiness for College and Career Ready Teaching, Learning and Assessment.”

Cost is another consideration. Currently, the state pays for development and administration of state tests – about $13 or $14 per student – and districts pay for scoring (about $15 per student).

According to the PARCC website, PARCC’s computer based test will cost $23.97 per student, “plus a small administrative fee.”

If the Regents decide to use PARCC tests, Wagner said he expects the price of administering and grading computer-based tests to be slightly less than paper tests. That would involve using PARCC scoring and would require New York to figure out a way to transition from the current method of splitting costs with local districts.

Among issues that testing critics have focused on is the role of for-profit companies. PARCC’s computer-based tests were developed by Pearson and ETS. Other big test companies include CTB/McGraw Hill, American Institutes for Research and testing giant ACT.

Asked about accusations that corporations are benefitting disproportionately from education reform, Wagner said, “it’s absolutely not about making money for anyone.”

He noted that familiar tests including the SAT, the National Assessment for Educational Progress and others are all planning to move online. Perceived improvements in computer-based testing include fewer security issues, improved turnaround time for grading and potentially lower costs.

Wagner said districts should not make technology purchases solely to be ready for computer-based testing. Rather, they should keep that application in mind when they upgrade technology for the purpose of instruction.

“We want to do this together” with local districts, Wagner said. “We know that if we try to do this by command, it’s not going to be good for anyone.”


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