Computerized state assessments to save time, money

Despite growing up with computers in her home and classroom, fourth-grader Laurel Huntley prefers taking state assessments the old-fashioned way — with paper and pencil.

"It's easier to make mistakes" on the computer, said Laurel, a Beech Elementary student. "You might click on the wrong thing."

But, as all students statewide, Laurel will have to take her math, reading and writing tests on the computer this year.

They'll be testing for a longer period of time. To make sure all students have access to a computer this year, Kansas has one of the largest assessment windows in the nation — starting last week and running through April 13.

The emphasis on state assessments has taken hold on school culture nationwide in the past decade because federal law uses the scores as the principal way to judge a school's quality.

For some high-poverty schools that receive federal funding, the test results in reading and math could determine whether they have to provide tutoring or even start the school from scratch.

So any change in the testing system, including switching to online assessment forms, can set a whole school on edge.

Move to computers

Having all schools use the computerized version of the test saves the state money in printing costs — about $350,000 a year — but the switch is mostly for expediency, said David Bowman, an education program consultant in assessments for the Kansas State Department of Education.

With paper tests and the mailing and scanning required to process them, schools didn't see scores until the beginning of the next school year in August. Now, Bowman said, they can expect official results in May.

"That's the big advantage — the motivational factor for kids and teachers," he said. "Teachers can start planning for next year" before the school year ends.

Kansas schools have been able to use the computerized form of the assessment since 2004, and Bowman said three years ago the state told the schools they would need to be able to administer it to all students on the computer by this year.

"The big switch for some districts... has been the capacity issue — access to that many computers," Bowman said.

Although the state saves some money, the cost burden of switching to computerized assessment forms falls on the district.

Almost 20 percent of the assessments taken in the Wichita district have been computerized in the past few years, said Denise Seguine, chief academic officer. Lack of computers stopped more students from using the online version of the test.

The Wichita district spent $1.9 million on Netbooks and $20,400 on updating Internet connections this year to help students practice for and take assessments outside of computer labs. Most schools only have one lab.

The district has a hotline of computer technicians to help school test coordinators in case of technical difficulties during the assessments.

The state has provided no additional money for schools to buy the technology, Bowman said.

He said most districts won't use the additional computers just for assessments, but also to expand their technology programs.

The biggest budget concern will be districts delaying or cutting their technology plans as tax revenue falls even shorter, Bowman said.

The Wichita district cut back its five-year technology program this year because of budget cuts.

'Ahead of the curve'

Nationally, the question is not if, but when, states will switch to a computerized form for state assessments, said Stanley Rabinowitz, director of Assessment and Standards program at WestEd, an agency that writes items for state assessments nationwide, including for those in Kansas.

"It's cheaper, quicker and more effective," he said.

"Kansas is in the mainstream, ahead of the curve."

Studies comparing students taking the paper Kansas assessment with the computerized one show there's no significant difference in performance, Rabinowitz said.

"Kids are doing more writing online," he said. "The paper test is almost more difficult."

The biggest variable in students doing well on the computerized version was access to computers at home, Rabinowitz said. But he said more access to computers at school is making the playing field fairer for students of low-income families.

Immediate feedback

Beech Elementary students practiced the state assessment tests on laptops last year, but this is the first year they will take the real test on it — on tiny Netbooks with tiny keyboards, fourth-grade teacher Shawnia Chambers said.

The main difference in taking the test on the computer is that students tend to rush, Chambers said.

"When they are filling in bubbles, they read more slowly," she said. "I'm trying to get them to slow down."

Chambers said she does this by requiring students to use scratch paper to show their work on math questions during practice tests.

The best part of computerized practice is instant feedback given to the student, she said.

"They can see the results when they finish," Chambers said. "It shows every question they missed. We really get to gather data and pinpoint what they need."

Laurel, one of Chambers' students, said the practice on computers is helping improve her test-taking skills for the real deal in two weeks. On Tuesday she earned a perfect score on the reading passage.

"I usually get 86 percent," she said, beaming about her improvement. "We take these kinds of tests a lot."