Special Report

The Teacher’s New Test

By Michelle Galley — September 12, 2017 8 min read
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Students in Carole Givens’ U.S. history class last year took a quiz at the beginning of every period. But they didn’t line up at the pencil sharpener to get ready. Instead, they fired up their laptops.

Givens, a 34-year teaching veteran who teaches at the 1,500-student Varina High School in suburban Richmond, Va., used online quizzes as a way of reviewing each unit with her students. A computer graded the quizzes and gave her a running total on how each student was performing.

“It was an incredible feature,” says Givens, who knew right away if she needed to review a lesson, based on how her students had performed on the latest quiz.

Computerized testing is starting to catch on in classrooms across the country as teachers look for more efficient ways to evaluate students. Some say their use of computer-based quizzes or tests has saved them untold hours that would otherwise have been spent grading by hand.

Yet a host of barriers exist that could prevent many teachers from going down the path to computerized tests. And even the teachers who are already using such tests say the method has its limitations.

To begin with, many teachers don’t know how to use software to give tests and quizzes, says Rosemary Skeele, an education professor at Seton Hall University, in South Orange, N.J., who trains teachers to use technology in their classrooms.

Educators also point out that computerized exams could underestimate the knowledge of some students who are not particularly skilled at using computers.

Beyond those concerns, Skeele says most classrooms have only one or two computers, which is not enough to give every student a test. And in many cases, the computers that teachers use are so old that they cannot support new test-writing programs.

“The systems in K-12 schools are just not sophisticated enough,” Skeele says.

Those problems are not issues for Givens. Still, she doesn’t use computers to give regular exams.

Computer access is not the reason: Givens’ district, Virginia’s 42,000-student Henrico County public schools, supplies each student and teacher with his or her own laptop.

Training is not a problem, either: Each middle and high school in the district has a technology-support person on staff to train and assist teachers. This year, Givens fills that position for her school.

Rather, she says, the main roadblock to using computers for regular exams is test security.

Givens says she gives her students credit only for completing the quizzes they take on computers, not for how many questions they get right. That’s because she worries that students might be able to hack in to the system and discover the questions in advance.

And when she gives her quizzes, she walks around the room to make sure that students are keeping their eyes on their own screens. In fact, she says, “some people think it is easier to look on a computer screen than on a piece of paper,” because the screens can’t be covered as well.

Givens’ concern is a common one, says Skeele. “High schools don’t have [computer] security systems” in place that are as effective as the ones used by colleges and universities, she says.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Still, as computerized testing catches on, software developers have labored to come up with products to suit teachers’ needs.

“This is an avenue people are looking at,” says Donald Knezek, the chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, based in Eugene, Ore. “Companies are scrambling to create systems teachers can use to construct assessments.”

In 2001, for example, the software giant Microsoft rolled out Classroom Server, a software program that allows teachers to put together tests, quizzes, and assignments using computerized resources such as a question database, graphics files, and materials designed by other teachers.

Also, some Internet sites allow teachers to design their own computerized tests and quizzes. For example, at a cost of $49 a year, teachers can subscribe to a Web-based program called Quia. They can use the program to create quizzes and other assessment tools in a host of different subjects. Students then visit the site to complete the quizzes.

Even though such software is available, Skeele of Seton Hall University cautions educators not to become too reliant on the new technology: “You need a variety of testing methods in a classroom.”

She points out that computers are good at giving certain kinds of tests—those that measure facts, procedures, or principles, and thus lend themselves to multiple-choice, true-or-false, and short-answer questions. Computers are not good tools for tests that require longer, more complex answers, and those in which students are asked to show their work.

In an Advanced Placement chemistry class at Esperanza High School in Anaheim, Calif., Marcia Sprang uses computerized tests and quizzes about once a week, depending on what she is teaching. “I need my students to practice solving particular kinds of problems and get good at it,” she says.

Sprang uses a program called Titanium, which was developed by researchers at California State University-Fullerton.

It uses a huge database of problem sets, which allows a teacher to assign each student a different question covering the same concept. Sprang says this feature cuts down significantly on cheating.

Students are also able to go back and do their work over and over again using different problems, until they master the concept and get the score they want. “And I never see a piece of paper,” Sprang says.

Sprang, who has been teaching for 20 years, says that since she started using the program, her students have tended to score better on her final exam because they’ve experienced a multitude of questions covering the same concept.

She is also able to see each step her students take to solve a given problem, using a program called Immex, which was developed at the University of California, Los Angeles.

With Immex, students might be told, for instance, that they are hazardous-materials engineers who need to clean up a chemical spill. But first they need to identify the chemical.

The program allows them to conduct simulated physical and chemical experiments, such as combining the unknown substance with reactants. The result of the combination should lead them to the right chemical.

“The software tracks where they go in a problem,” Sprang says.

Still, Sprang gives her end-of-course exams the time-honored way: on paper. She says her students need to be comfortable taking paper-and-pencil tests, too, because that’s the format for the AP exams.

“If I am preparing my students to take an AP exam, I need to make sure they can produce the information required using the required format,” she says.

Handful of Computers

Teachers are becoming more comfortable with technology, which means that electronic testing may become more commonplace, says Lee Baldwin, the president of the National Association of Test Directors, a Web-based network of district-level testing officials.

“I don’t think it will be universal in the foreseeable future, but I think you will see more applications of technology,” says Baldwin, who is also the senior director of assessment and program evaluation for the 152,000-student Orange County, Fla., school system, in Orlando.

Echoing other testing experts, Baldwin says that limits on infrastructure—access to enough computers at the same time—pose a major obstacle for teachers who want to use computer-based testing.

But Cathy Dearing, a 4th grade teacher at the 450- student J.P. Vincent Elementary School in Bloomfield, Conn., has tried to overcome that hurdle.

The handful of computers in Dearing’s 20-pupil classroom are used primarily to teach basic word processing. Yet even with relatively few machines available, she has found a way to give reading assessments online.

It’s a format her students enjoy, says Dearing, who has been teaching for 16 years. “It’s highly motivating,” she says. “They take ownership for their own reading progress.”

Dearing uses Scholastic Inc.’s iReAch program three times a year to administer the reading assessments. She picks a title from a list provided by the program, assigns it to a student, and then the student is responsible for reading the book and taking the corresponding computerized test.

Because the tests are online, and most of her students have computer access at home, Dearing says she encourages the children to take them there. She has also formed a partnership with the local library so that students can use its computers to take the tests.

Each test is made up mostly of multiple-choice questions tailored to the particular book.

By using iReAch, Dearing says, “we don’t have to guess whether or not a student has read a book, or how well they have read it.”

Paperless Classroom?

Last year, Brian White, a chemistry teacher at the 2,300-student Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, converted the papers in his filing cabinet to CD -ROMs.

In addition, he now uses his school’s Web site to post classroom resources. Extra worksheets for students who need help, and a schedule of what the class is learning, are posted on his own Web page.

As part of his push toward a paperless classroom, White, who has been teaching for eight years, would like to start giving computerized exams. But he’s come up against a significant barrier.

The textbooks he uses came with a set of CD -ROMs, but the electronic “question bank” contained in each CD -ROM can’t be transferred to the test-writing software he wants to use.

Consequently, White says, “I would have to go back and type in every single question, and that is not realistic.”

When White picks out new textbooks for this coming fall, an accompanying electronic database of test questions that he can use easily will be critical, he says.

“By the fall of 2004, we will be using new textbooks and giving tests online,” he predicts.

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2003 edition of Education Week


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