The Grade Blog

Saturday, Sep 21 2013 07:00 PM

Computerized exams put to the test in Kern

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    South Fork Middle School students work on computers in this file photo.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Dry runs for a new computerized test meant to replace pencil and paper throughout California schools went generally well locally but exposed a few weaknesses, educators say.

In 2014-15, all schools in the state are expected to begin administering an electronic standardized test to measure the degree to which students are meeting new national academic standards.

About 200,000 students at 1,400 schools across the state, including 39 in Kern County, took practice tests between Feb. 20 and May 24. They mainly went pretty well, local administrators said, but some flaws emerged.

At Ollivier Middle School in southeast Bakersfield's Greenfield Union School District, for instance, testing was delayed for four hours because the website where it was to be taken was down.

The school took it in stride, said Principal Sheila Johnson.

"That's why you run a pilot, to work out the bugs," she said.

The new test is part of the implementation of Common Core State Standards, a set of minimum expectations for math and English-language arts competency at each grade level. California and most of the rest of the country adopted them in 2010.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is a multistate coalition that established the new test, aligned with those standards.

In California, the smarter balanced test will be called the California Measurement of Academic Performance and Progress for the 21st Century.

The California Legislature recently passed Assembly Bill 484, which would limit the use of outdated Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) system tests for the 2013-14 school year and begin statewide use of electronic assessments next year.

Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he plans to sign the bill into law. If he does, this year 600,000 students will participate in a second, expanded dry run to get ready for the full rollout.

The state hasn't selected which schools will be this year's guinea pigs, but there should be plenty of local schools participating.

Test scores from last year's pilot test and this year's expanded field tests won't be disclosed publicly for either individuals or schools.

"These aren't tests of the students or the schools, and there won't be any accountability linked to the results," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson during a recent visit to Kern County. "It's really just a test of the test."

Good thing, too, because just about everyone reported that the new test was harder. Among other things, it has fewer multiple choice questions, so students can't take a wild guess if they don't know the answer.

"I believe it's a more accurate assessment of what they know," said Stuart Packard, who wears two hats as principal of Buttonwillow Elementary school and superintendent of its district. "The direction we're going in is questions that ask students to think a little deeper."

The downside of that is the challenge it poses for schools with large numbers of English learners, he added.

"We're going to have to focus that much more on English language development," Packard said.

Then there's the technology issue, which has been one of the major concerns about the new test.

Desktop and laptop computers, netbooks and thin clients are the only devices students are allowed to use to take the test.

Not every school has enough of those, or sufficient bandwidth to accommodate an entire school taking the exam at once.

Plus, computers and websites are fickle.

Kevin Williams is assistant superintendent at the Beardsley School District, which had two of its four schools in the pilot. Fifth-graders at North Beardsley Elementary took the math test and sixth-graders at Beardsley Elementary took the English-language arts test.

Williams said some of Beardsley's students wrapped their headsets around their necks because the sound was loud enough to hurt their ears.

"We're looking into getting new headsets where you can adjust the volume because what's loud for one child isn't going to be so loud for the next, but that's an added cost," he said.

To help campuses that don't have a computer for every student, last year's pilot schools were given a window of time in which to rotate classes in and out of computer labs. Most schools administered the tests over a week or two.

But even that wasn't enough for Ollivier, which gave the math portion of the test to about 300 eighth-graders over three days.

The school had one lab with 34 computers last year. This year it added a second lab with 28 computers.

There will be a lot more demand for machines when the testing includes all grade levels and both the math and English-language arts portions of the test, the principal said.

"That's going to be the most difficult part, the scheduling," said Danyel Kelly, principal of the Fruitvale School District's Discovery Elementary School, which tested about 200 fifth- and sixth-graders.

The good news, he said, was that students seemed to prefer working on computers to filling in tiny ovals with No. 2 pencils.

"They're digital natives, so they're used to that," Kelly said.

That was a common refrain at the pilot schools. For a generation that largely has grown up with smart phones and video games, taking tests on computers isn't a big deal.

But that's not universal, and the testing exposed Kern County's digital divide.

"We don't teach computer literacy in our schools, and each child's ability and exposure to technology is varied," said Tomas Prieto, principal of Sierra Middle School in the Bakersfield City School District. "Those of us who grew up with computers already know how to highlight something or click and drag, the basics of an operating system. We just take that for granted. But during the test in some cases, we had to show kids how to do that."

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