Online test will challenge students' computer savvy

March 16, 2014

New computerized tests in math and English will test students’ technological and comprehension skills. Credit:

They can send two-thumbed text messages at the speed of light; deploy an infantry of firebats to quash a Zergling attack against the Terran species in StarCraft while doing their algebra homework; and take, edit and post a photo on Facebook while skateboarding. Yet, even with this seemingly innate technical aptitude, many students will be stymied when they sit down to take the computer-based field test aligned to the Common Core standards starting this month.

“It’s a quantum leap going from a multiple-choice paper test to an open-ended computer test. We’re now testing something in a format that most students aren’t used to,” said Joel Hampton, superintendent of Owens Valley Unified School District in Inyo County. The test, aligned to the Common Core State Standards in math and English, replaces the pencil-and-paper bubble test for students in grades 3 through 8 and 11; the test was developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a states-led group developing the most effective way to test students in the new standards.

(See companion piece on whether schools have adequate technology to offer the test.)

The most basic worry is that students don’t have keyboarding skills – known archaically as touch-typing – but even familiarity with “the quick brown fox” won’t help much when faced with a split screen displaying a reading passage on the left side and questions on the right side that requires each to be scrolled independently.

“The biggest thing is not necessarily the device that they’re going to be taking it on, but being familiar with the actual assessment, so the technology doesn’t get in the way of them demonstrating understanding,” said Colby Smart with the Humboldt County Office of Education, who helps teachers integrate technology into their lessons.

As in many California schools, students in Humboldt County have been taking the practice tests available online to become comfortable both with navigating through the test and understanding the types of questions.

Like the Common Core State Standards they’re aligned with, Smarter Balanced assessments go beyond conventional multiple-choice questions, asking students to show deeper critical thinking through data analysis, persuasive writing and showing how they got their answers.

One of the assessment targets – what students are expected to be able to do – described on the Smarter Balanced website illustrates these new expectations: “Students can analyze complex, real-world scenarios and can construct and use mathematical models to interpret and solve problems.”

Students may be most unprepared for one aspect of the test, called “performance tasks.”

First, they’ll get a half-hour classroom lesson on a topic developed by Smarter Balanced. Then, students will turn back to the computer, where they’ll have one or two hours to complete a series of activities related to that lesson.

Nuclear power is used as an example for an eleventh grade performance task in English language arts. In the classroom lesson, students learn about different energy sources and the controversy over nuclear power. For the assessment, students are asked to imagine that they’re chief-of-staff for a local congresswoman who has to decide whether to support plans for a nuclear power plant in her state.

The task begins with the congresswoman’s assignment. “I need you,” she continues, “to conduct a brief survey of the pros and cons of nuclear power. Summarize what you have learned and report back to me this afternoon.”

After researching the issue on the Internet, the students have to cite sources for each side of the argument and evaluate the credibility of those sources. Finally, they have to draft a report recommending a position for the congresswoman, taking into account all the research.

Hampton worries that such complex, multi-part questions may baffle students, especially the youngest ones. He said the practice tests show that students may know the correct answer, but be confused by what they are supposed to do.

“A lot of it is just following the directions; one simple misdirection on the instructions and they’re way off in left field,” Hampton said. “They’re completely performing the wrong task and there’s no way to get the right answer out of it.”

Contact senior reporter Kathryn Baron and follow her on Twitter @TchersPet. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California. 

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