Fifth graders at Townsend Elementary in the Appoquinimink district waiting to begin the state standardized reading test.
By Sarah Garland

New high-tech standardized tests are coming soon to schools across the country, but will these new tests really revolutionize how we measure whether children are learning? The designers of the new tests, which a majority of states plan to adopt in two years, are allowing a sneak peek at sample questions.

Two competing state coalitions have taken on the job of designing the new tests, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and both have posted examples of what’s coming on their websites.

In some questions, which the test designers have called “computer enhanced,” students will be asked to drag words or numbers across the screen, or to highlight phrases or sentences in a reading passage. In one example provided by Smarter Balanced to reporters during a conference call Monday, high school students can click on the screen to transfer water from a cube to a cylinder, which helps them solve a math problem about radius.

Fifth graders at Townsend Elementary in the Appoquinimink district waiting to begin the state standardized reading test. (Photo by Sarah Garland)

There will also be problems that require research and writing. Smarter Balanced officials gave an example of a multi-part question in which high school students are asked to imagine they are the chief of staff for a congresswoman. Before they start working on the test, their teacher is supposed to lead a classroom activity about nuclear power. The students are then asked to come up with a list of pros and cons about nuclear power. Finally, they must write up a presentation for the congresswoman to give at a press conference later that day.

“I can tell you, that’s real world,” said Barbara Kapinus, the director of English language arts and literacy for Smarter Balanced. “I’ve been in that situation.”

Many questions will continue to be multiple-choice, however. States have favored multiple-choice tests because they are cheaper to design and score, and since answer sheets can be run through a computer. Questions like the one about nuclear power are more expensive, because they will likely require a trained evaluator to score them.

One of the biggest concerns about the new tests has been how to finance them. The two coalitions designing the tests won grants from the federal government to pay for the beginning of the process, but this funding won’t cover ongoing expenses related to the tests, like paying people to score answer sheets and the cost of new computers and expanded bandwidth.

In the conference call with reporters, the director of Smarter Balanced, Joe Willhoft, said states that have signed on for the tests have agreed to pay annual administrative fees associated with the tests. “The lion’s share of those costs is bundled up in the human scoring,” he said.

This post originally appeared on The Hechinger Report.

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  • darren coxon

    Having looked at the comprehension question for language arts I cannot see how this is any different from a standard O level style comprehension question, that has been around for years. The platform may be different (computer input rather than paper), but how is it testing other skills?

  • spicytofu

    I have not taken a standard O level exam, but based on some of the types of questions, students can at least answer these questions using their OWN words and thoughts written down instead of picking choices randomly. Also, students don’t have to worry about erasing or rewriting with a pencil. I think this computer set up allows students more flexibility (if they have proficient typing skills).

  • Bruce William Smith

    O levels would set a new standard in America; but the decision to base these tests on a computer platform will likely add enormously to their cost, with a very poor return on investment, at least initially, until all schools start integrating computers into daily lessons as a matter of course.

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