The architects of the nation’s leading test of student academic progress are taking steps to move that exam into the computer age—and coping with the common frustrations of school-based technology.
Federal officials who oversee the National Assessment of Educational Progress have arranged to give a portion of the upcoming science test and the entire future writing test at two grade levels by computer, rather than have students take it with paper and pencil. But at a meeting May 16, they heard reports detailing the technological and logistical hurdles the government faces in trying to administer that prominent exam, often called “the nation’s report card.”
An early test of federal officials’ ability to give NAEP by computer will come in 2009, when they plan to have a relatively small number of students conduct computerized science investigations as part of the national test in that subject for grades 4, 8, and 12. Those officials said they are confident the relatively modest computerized venture will go smoothly.
But a much larger trial will come in 2011, when the plan is, for the first time, to give the entire NAEP writing tests for grades 8 and 12 via computer.
The National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, decided to move to a computerized writing test in the belief that students today do the bulk of their writing via computer keyboards, rather than sketching it out longhand. Using computer technology, they reasoned, is thus a more appropriate way to gauge students’ writing skills in today’s society.
In their early efforts to plan for that large-scale computerized testing, however, federal officials have found that participating schools use a wide range of incompatible and outdated computer programs, Mark S. Schneider, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said in a presentation at the governing board’s quarterly meeting. His arm of the U.S. Department of Education administers NAEP.
In some cases, the computer-security systems in schools would make it difficult to administer NAEP in a secure and reliable way, Mr. Schneider told the board members. And despite widespread advances in school technology in recent years, federal officials found some schools still using programs as old as Windows 95.
“It’s a mess out there,” Mr. Schneider said, summing up the hodgepodge of school computer systems.
More Accurate Measurements Expected
A small proportion of students taking the 2009 NAEP in science will be given “interactive computer tasks,” which pose a scientific problem to students, asking them to use databases and come up with conclusions on computers. Those tasks offer a better alternative to trying to gauge students’ ability to do certain hands-on experiments and solve complex scientific questions, a blueprint for the 2009 science test explained.
Federal officials will be able to handle that task, most likely by distributing laptop computers, which would be used by different student groups at different times, Peggy Carr, the associate NCES commissioner, said in an interview at the governing-board meeting.
But the 2011 writing test poses a much greater challenge, because so many more students will need access to computers. Federal officials are considering several options, such as using a wireless technology to give the writing tests, or using small flash drives that include the exam material and could be inserted into computers used by test-takers, Mr. Schneider said.
Having students take the test with laptops is also possible, Mr. Schneider said. But the difficulty of delivering those machines to so many schools, and paying for them, could exclude that option, even though laptop prices have fallen, he added.
“We’re working on solutions,” Mr. Schneider told the board, though “none of them are going to be easy, and none of them are going to be cheap.”
The board’s decision to move to a computerized writing test mirrors the action of a number of states, which have also sought to administer exams in that subject area on computers. State and national officials have reasoned that not only do most students today write primarily with computers, but they are also expected to be familiar with that technology in college and the workplace. Testing their writing on a computer more accurately measures essential skills, the thinking goes.
The governing board reviewed the experiences of states administering computer-based exams and was aware of the challenges in bringing that technology to NAEP, said member Amanda P. Avallone. She served on a committee that oversaw the revision of the writing test.
One of the main challenges was crafting a computer-based test that could navigate around and be compatible with various school district “firewalls” or security systems, said Ms. Avallone, an 8th grade English teacher. Even so, she said she was confident that those barriers could be overcome.
“Anyone who knows technology and knows how quickly it changes,” Ms. Avallone said, “knew there would be challenges.”