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First Assessment of Computer Competency To Focus on Skills

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The nation's first comprehensive assessment of students' computer competency--now being readied for the spring of 1986--will measure not what they know about the technology but what they can do with it.

"Computing is not a spectator sport," Marc S. Tucker, the chairman of the committee that has been charged with designing the new assessment, said last week. "Increasingly, people view the computer as not something kids should know about but rather as a machine of which they ought to be competent users."

Mr. Tucker's committee, composed of seven teachers and computer specialists, was assembled earlier this year by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which plans to conduct the first evaluation of computer competency a little over a year from now. The panel, Mr. Tucker said, is putting the finishing touches on a host of questions to be field-tested in 48 school districts in February.

The questions will represent those to be used in the spring of 1986, when the abilities of some 39,000 students ages 9, 13, and 17 in about 30 states, 1,200 school districts and 2,000 schools will be measured, accord-ing to Eleanor C. Driscoll, coordinator of the naep computer-competency assessment.

Ms. Driscoll noted that the assessment will be part of a "technology package" that will also measure students' abilities in mathematics, science, and reading.

In all, she said, some 106,000 students nationwide will be included in the sample.

Each will receive a booklet containing three blocks of questions. While one student can be questioned in three different subject areas, another might receive three blocks of questions in only one subject area.

It will be the fifth assessment of reading and science and the fourth mathematics assessment conducted by naep, which was established by the federal government in 1969 to make periodic assessments of students' knowledge and attitudes in various subject areas.

Previously operated by the Education Commission of the States, the naep program changed hands in 1983, when the National Institute of Education awarded a five-year contract for the evaluations to the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J., nonprofit research and testing firm.

The assessments are not used to grade or advance students, or to measure a school's success, but to provide information on how students on a nationwide basis fare in a particular subject area over time.

The addition of computing to the list of subjects periodically assessed by naep--which includes science, mathematics, literature, writing, social studies, music, and art--represents a "coming of age" for computing, Mr. Tucker said.

"Three years ago, certainly four, almost nobody would have expected it would be part of the school's responsibility to provide the means whereby kids could gain a basic mastery of computing," he explained. ''It was from that point of near-zero expectation that we went to a declaration by the National Commission on Excellence in Education that computing can be regarded as 'the fourth R.'

"I suppose," Mr. Tucker added, "that the decision of the assessment-policy committee of naep to inaugurate an assessment of computer competency represents another substantial milestone, because the assessments naep schedules are not of subjects regarded as peripheral but of subjects regarded as very important."

Testing Question

According to Mr. Tucker, who is also director of a study of information technology and education sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, one question that remains to be answered is whether a computer assessment can be adequately accomplished with a paper-and-pencil test--without a computer-performance test.

"I think every member of our committee believes that there are important aspects of computer competency that can be assessed with paper-and-pencil tests, so this is not an either/or question," Mr. Tucker said.

"The question is," he added, "whether there are some questions of computer competency that will re-quire performance tests."

Funds for Performance Tests

According to Mr. Tucker, naep is seeking funds to support the development of computer-performance tests that would be used to check the validity of the paper-and-pencil tests. At some point, he said, naep might administer parts of the assessment via computer.

But the first computer assessment, as it is currently planned, will include multiple-choice and open-ended questions in three major areas: computer programming in one of three languages--basic, pascal, or logo; computer applications in such areas as word processing, graphics, telecommunications, and database management; and computer knowledge and attitudes in such areas as the history of computers, parts of computer systems, and computer ethics.

Curriculum Guidelines

In addition to designing the assessment questions, Mr. Tucker's committee is also developing an "objective statement" on computer competency.

A draft of the statement, Ms. Driscoll said, was to be reviewed by a group of 15 teachers and school administrators this week as part of a three-phase review process. Government officials, parents, business executives, and computer specialists are among those who have also had--or will have--a chance to review the statement.

According to Ms. Driscoll, the "objective statement" has a dual purpose. It serves as both a guide for developing the exercises used in the national assessment and an attempt "to outline a field for educators who are trying to develop curriculum or measures of their own."

The "objective statement" for computer competence should be6ready for distribution by next May, Ms. Driscoll said.

Concern Over Statement

Sharon Burrowes, a member of Mr. Tucker's committee who is also a computer-education resource teacher for the Wooster, Ohio, public schools, said it is "scary" to think that some educators might use the statement booklet as their sole curriculum guide.

"We're working overtime to avoid that, but being realists, we know that many, many school systems are just really desperate for some kind of guidance and they're going to look to some organization like naep for that guidance," Ms. Burrowes said.

"I think we'll have the objective statement in the best form we can expect to have it," she added. "It's how people interpret it that's the problem. I would say it's only a first step. [Educators should] look at it, evaluate it in light of their own circumstances, and then not carve it in stone but let it be a springboard from which they grow.''

Field Changing Rapidly

One argument for allowing computer curricula to evolve rather than "etch them in stone" is the changing nature of the computing field, Ms. Burrowes said.

"The computing world is not likely to stand still while schools develop an orderly curriculum," wrote Thomas A. Ewing in a recent article on the computer assessment for the Educational Testing Service. "Rapid changes in sophistication and availability of computers will directly affect our beliefs about what is important for students to know and be able to do."

It is this "chameleon" nature of the computing field that also posed "complex and unusual problems" for the naep committee, Mr. Tucker said.

"Unlike in virtually any other established field that you can name,'' he said, "people are beginning everywhere. That is, both 3rd graders and corporate executives are being introduced to computers for the first time. So unlike an established curriculum field in which you can assume that young people are beginning and older people are taking more advanced work, we can't make that assumption."

The Competent User

However, the more important problem, Mr. Tucker said, is that "the country as a whole is really struggling for some definition of what it might mean to be a competent computer user."

And that, he added, is related to the changes in the field of computing. As the cost of computing power decreases, he explained, the number of computers in the schools increases--as does the amount of time in which students have access to them.

"There are some things you can do with computers when kids have access to them for 15 minutes a week, but there are a great many things you can't do with a computer when you meet for that time," Mr. Tucker said.

"If students have substantial access to computers for word processing," he explained, "you can start to build a writing curriculum around the computer, and the way you teach writing is likely to change quite a lot. But if you don't have that kind of access, students will only have time to learn about word processing."

'Valuable Information'

Although designing the assessment has proved to be a formidable challenge, Mr. Tucker said, he is "quite confident that the design and the assessment itself are going to yield very valuable information for an awful lot of people that is not obtainable anywhere else or in any other way."

In addition to Mr.Tucker and Ms. Burrowes, the naep committee includes:

Harold Abelson, associate professor in the electrical-engineering and computer-science department, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Eugene Galanter, professor of psychology, Columbia University; Vinetta Jones, director of the statewide math/science network, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Arthur Luehrmann, partner, Computer Literacy Incorporated, Berkeley, Calif.; Michelle Rohr, mathematics instructional supervisor, Houston Independent School District; and Joyce Tobias, curriculum coordinator for computer education, Brookline (Mass.) Public Schools.

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