By Grace Rubenstein, Ana Tintocalis and Tara Siler
A new era in standardized testing of students begins Tuesday — but this test is only a test.
California is starting its trial run of a new state exam to measure elementary, middle and high school students’ performance each year. The test is meant to tap more sophisticated thinking and problem-solving skills than the familiar fill-in-the-bubble forms of old. Questions will gauge students’ mastery of the Common Core Standards, the new national list of everything students should learn, adopted by California in 2010.
And, alas for the No. 2 pencil, the exam will be done entirely on computers.
That’s cause for some anxiety among teachers, students and tech support staff around the state. Do all schools even have the technological capacity to deliver a 3.5-hour computerized exam? The trial run, which will reach different schools at different times through early June, aims to answer that question.
Small and rural school districts with weaker Internet service are girding for connectivity problems. The digitizing of the exam allows test-makers to include videos, interactive charts and graphics never seen in old-school tests, which modern students might appreciate. But that could further strain schools’ capacity, even in urban settings.
Then there’s the simple matter of screen space. The San Francisco Unified School District, for one, has been buying iPads and Chromebooks, but there still may not be enough devices to go around.
John Burke, supervisor for achievement assessments at San Francisco Unified, said glitches are to be expected, and part of this field test will be “dealing with some of the frustrations as people try to get in (to the test) and aren’t successful.”
Questions remain, too, about how the youngest students will fare with the new format. The test emphasizes writing and word problems, and thus relies heavily on keyboarding. Every California public school student in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11 will have to take it. Is it reasonable to expect that kids as young as 8 — some of whom might be nimble text-messagers but not yet be stellar keyboarders — will be able to shine?
“There’s a lot going on the screen at any given time, and certainly just their ability to take all that in, as well as answer a sophisticated question, is going to be a difficult task for them,” Burke said. “It’s going to take a lot of concentration.”
Fortunately, the scores won’t count during this year’s dry run. State education officials underscore that this field test is meant to iron out the technical kinks, gauge the accuracy and fairness of test questions, and give teachers and students some hands-on practice before the real test comes in 2015.
The new test replaces the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests that have been an annual rite for California students for the past 15 years. The new one (prepare for acronym-induced dizziness) will be called the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP).
Got questions? The California Department of Education offers these informational videos (which may not have been field-tested as thoroughly as the exam itself) for the high school and middle school demographics:
The state’s website also provides practice tests for the practice test — in case you want to be extra, extra prepared.