Schoolkids are pointing and clicking their way through the state’s first computerized assessment in math and English. Because this is a practice year, the scores won’t count.
California is making the switch to a new test because schools now follow a new set of academic standards called Common Core. The standards move away from classroom lectures and focus instead on hands-on projects and critical thinking skills.
The assessment relies heavily on the written word and comes with many new on-screen features, including ways to customize the testing experience for the state’s 1.3 million English learners.
Online testing tools include translations, spell-check and ways to break up text so students have an easier time reading passages and questions.
There are also glossaries in 10 languages, ranging from Punjabi to Spanish.
Many English learners are happy for the support.
“I think the test is going to be fun, mostly because it’s all on computer,” said Donna Rosales, a fourth-grade student at Greer Elementary in Sacramento. “But I will need some help in understanding some of the questions.”
Education experts say offering these tools marks a big change for California.
The state has long struggled with the right way to teach and test students who are non-native English speakers. Sixteen years ago, voters approved Proposition 227, which dismantled bilingual education in favor of English immersion classes.
Robert Linquanti, project director for English Learner Evaluation and Accountability Support at WestEd, an education research group, said the new testing tools show schools have evolved.
“These supports are going to help level the playing field for English learners,” he said. “The language interference will be minimized. … Students will be learning English and will demonstrate what they know using English, but these supports will help that process, so the students can really show what they know.”
Immigrant parents like Aracelis Navarro are grateful. Her daughter is a second-grader at Greer Elementary in Sacramento.
“She can understand more (English) than she can speak,” Navarro said. “At home, we only speak Spanish. I’m happy there will be some support for her as she learns both languages.”
Experts, however, say one of the challenges for teachers will be matching every English learner with the right online testing tools. If mistakes happen along the way, student scores could suffer.
“You don’t want those tools to get in the way,” said Sally Bennett-Schmidt, assessment director for the San Diego County Office of Education. “You don’t want students to sit down, and there are so many fancy features. It’s like figuring out a brand-new microwave.”
In an effort to boost testing performance, some districts have been trying to give their English learners more practice on computer programs that mimic the new online state assessment.
For example, the Chula Vista Unified School District in San Diego County has been using a variety of language-based computer programs that encourage students to read out loud, write short answers, and analyze and extract text from reading passages.
Teachers at Myrtle S. Finney Elementary School in Chula Vista look forward to a new way of measuring student knowledge, but need more training to fully understand how to customize the testing experience for their English learners.
Finney Elementary School Principal Olivia Amador-Valerio said with so much at stake, she wishes there was more time to prepare her teachers.
“We’re all nervous,” she said. “The crucial piece has been time. Time to really understand and think about what are the implications (of the new testing tools) and how are we going to make this work for every single child.”
Experts say principals and teachers have to figure this all out soon, or risk seeing their school’s overall performance dip when the real test comes next year.
The testing window for this year’s practice test closes in June.