Reading & Literacy

On Writing Tests, Computers Slowly Making Mark

By Sean Cavanagh — February 13, 2007 6 min read

Most adults can remember when taking a writing test meant sitting down with a paper and pencil, then scribbling out sentences and erasing mistakes until the time ran out.

For many students today, however, writing extended essays is a task performed almost exclusively on a computer, typically one equipped with automated tools to help them spell, check grammar, and even choose the right words.

In recognition of that technological progression, a number of states have incorporated computer-based testing into their writing assessments. Other states are piloting ways of using technology to gauge writing. The movement to assess writing on computers also could grow if the directors of the influential National Assessment of Educational Progress act on a proposal to replace the handwritten test of writing at the 8th and 12th grade levels with a computerized exam.

The board that oversees NAEP will consider taking that step next month.

Testing students’ writing ability via computer makes sense, some assessment officials from around the country say, not only because of students’ widespread familiarity with computers, but also because of the demands of college and the workplace, where word-processing skills are a must.

“You want a connection between what’s going on in the outside world and what’s going on in the classroom,” said Kathleen Blake Yancey, the vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English, an Urbana, Ill.-based organization that seeks to improve teaching and learning in that subject. The Florida State University English professor served on an expert committee studying proposed changes to NAEP.

“It’s a way of saying to schools, ‘The 21st century has arrived,’ ” she said.

Keyboard Equity

But computerized writing tests also pose numerous challenges for testing officials. One question is whether to allow students to use automated spelling, grammar, and thesaurus tools that are a fixture of many word-processing programs. Skeptics note the continued disparities in access and use of computers at school and home for children from different socioeconomic backgrounds—a divide they say is likely to put some students at a disadvantage on test day.

“It will not make the gap between white and minority students go away. In fact, it may make it larger,” said Edward D. Roeber, the executive director of assessment and accountability for the Michigan education department, which has piloted a computerized writing test but has not made a decision on using it statewide. “For kids who have never had the opportunity [to work on computers], I don’t think they’ll do as well.”

Michigan tests writing as part of its exam in English language arts—one of the measures used to calculate schools’ yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Roeber said. Given those high stakes, he said, state officials are reluctant to begin testing all students’ writing on the English exam on computers until they more fully understand how that change could affect test scores.

In moving to computerized writing exams, testing officials also say they must consider whether schools have the equipment necessary to administer the tests. State officials can make up for shortages in capacity by expanding the length of time during which schools can give exams to allow more students to use the same machines. But that strategy can raise concerns about test security.

Computerized writing assessments can save states money over time, though they carry initial expenses in areas such as security and worker training in administering them, said Michael K. Russell, an associate professor of education at Boston College, who has studied such assessments.

Student access to school computers has improved since the 1990s. Today, public schools average one computer for every 3.8 students, an increase from roughly one machine for every 5.7 students in 1999, though that progress has leveled off in recent years, according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. Access to the Internet, even in schools in high-poverty areas, has also greatly increased from a decade ago, the research center estimates.

At the same time, minority students continue to lag significantly behind whites in access to computers and the Web, and gaps persist in the opportunities available to students in different states.

A True Measure

In a report on the proposal to move to a computer-based NAEP writing test, officials of ACT Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based testing company, said they knew of five states, including Maine and West Virginia, that currently incorporate computers into their writing assessments, and two more were piloting such exams.

Mr. Russell believes the move to computerized writing assessment is positive. Such tests could encourage states and schools to use technology in teaching that skill; research has shown that students who use computers regularly improve more quickly in writing, he said.

Moreover, as students’ computer use continues to grow, Mr. Russell said, states and schools that stick with handwritten essay tests may not be getting a true measure of students’ writing ability because they are requiring them to use a format that is less familiar to them.

Test-Taking Medium

Eighth graders using computers scored higher on writing tests than their peers who wrote with pencil and paper in a study out of New England.

*Click image to see the full chart.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: “Examining the Effect of Text Editor and Robust Word Processor on Student Writing Test Performance,” Boston College, 2004

“You’re going to be underestimating the writing performance of students,” he said.

The proposed revamping of the NAEP writing test could influence state officials’ thinking about using computerized writing exams, a number of testing experts said.

The National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, is considering having 8th and 12th graders take the exam via computer for the first time. Students would continue to take the 4th grade version of the exam in handwritten form for the time being, because the experience of children at that age with computers is more limited, board officials have said.

In public comments submitted to the board, the proposal to switch to a computerized test was mostly praised by a number of education organizations.

The National Education Association, for one, said the change would provide a “strong impetus for states and districts to increase all students’ access to technology,” and described it as “a powerful tool for equity.”

In a report outlining the proposed test changes, NAEP officials said they conducted a pilot study of 8th graders’ writing skills in 2002, using both handwritten and computer-based exams. The results showed no significant differences among students in different racial, gender, or socioeconomic subgroups, based on whether they took the paper-and-pencil or computer version.

How Big a Toolbox?

Officials studying the new computerized NAEP writing test have not yet decided how they would administer exams in districts with varying amounts of computer technology, said Rosanne Cook, a program manager at ACT who is directing the revision of that test. At a meeting in November, board members discussed possibly delivering computers to districts, though they are still weighing options.

The proposal now before the governing board would allow students to use computer tools on the 60-minute test such as spell-checkers and thesauruses, as well as tools to electronically cut and paste written material and adjust type fonts, Ms. Cook said.

Members of two committees studying the proposed NAEP test reason that those word-processing devices have become so prevalent in schools, and society at large, that it does not make sense to ask students to work without them.

“It creates a very artificial environment for the writing test that is not what they’re accustomed to,” Ms. Cook said. “Young people are expected to be able to produce … using these tools.”

In addition to moving to a computerized test, the new NAEP exam would place greater emphasis on asking students to demonstrate persuasive and explanatory writing, as well as skill in conveying a real or imagined experience. Under the framework for the proposed writing test, students would be asked to craft essays targeted to a more specific audience.

“Writing is a social act that is not done in isolation,” a draft document explains. “In most school, workplace, and military writing situations, writers know or are assigned an audience and have an objective in mind for what their writing is to accomplish.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as On Writing Tests, Computers Slowly Making Mark

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