Reading & Literacy

Study Eyes 4th Graders’ Readiness for Writing Tests on Computer

By Liana Loewus — August 05, 2014 3 min read

Fourth graders are capable of using a computer to type, organize, and write well enough to be assessed, according to a pilot study released last month by the National Center for Education Statistics. However, whether the results of a computer-based test offer a true measure of students’ writing abilities has yet to be determined.

The study also presents ideas for making computer-based exams more accessible to 4th graders, including by simplifying and reading aloud directions. It comes as the majority of states prepare to roll out common-core-aligned tests, most of which will be taken on computers next spring.

The NCES, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education and administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is also getting ready to expand its own computer-based assessment. In 2012, results were released for the first computer-based NAEP writing test for 8th and 12th graders. One quarter of students scored at the proficient level or higher.

In 2011, the NCES performed a small-scale usability study to see how well 4th graders could access the assessment platform used for the 8th and 12th grade NAEP writing tests, according to a July 24 press release from the NCES. That 60-student study found that “4th grade students varied in their ability to write using the computer, and that while some features seemed intuitive to students, others were more difficult to access.” Specifically, students had trouble reading and understanding the lengthy directions, and many skipped them altogether.

Based on those results, the NCES developed a modified assessment platform that had fewer words for the directions, presented one direction at a time, and included voiceovers to read the directions.

In 2012, the NCES administered a new writing test using the modified platform to a nonrepresentative sample of 13,000 4th graders. The students took two 30-minute or three 20-minute tests using a laptop and headphones. Overall, 61 percent of students scored at least a 3 on a 1-to-6 scale (with a 6 being the top score). That means the majority of students “wrote enough to be assessed, included ideas that were mostly on topic and used simple organizational strategies in most of their writing,” the NCES news release said.

‘An Initial Look’

But Ebony Walton, a researcher with the NCES, said “the performance piece is really just an initial look.” The results, she said, were not weighted and the pilot study is “just a snapshot. It was not necessarily to make definitive statements about students’ ability or how their use of these tools are related to ... performance.”

One glaring question not tackled by the study is how well students perform on the computer-based writing test compared with on the paper-and-pencil exam. That is, can 4th graders demonstrate their true writing ability using a computer, or is it a barrier for at least some?

The study does offer one comparison, focused on word count. On the NAEP paper-and-pencil writing test in 2010, 4th grade students wrote, on average, 159 words per response. With the computer-based test, which was 10 minutes longer, they wrote an average of 110 words.

Considering that the higher-scoring papers tend to have more words, as the 2012 data show, it’s possible students may not be showing their true abilities on the computer.

Ms. Walton said an overall performance comparison to paper-and-pencil scores “would have to be done empirically with another type of study.”

Scott Marion, the associate director of the Dover, N.H.-based National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, said he’d like to see a study in which students are each given two writing prompts, responding to one on paper and one on computer.

The NCES plans to release a more in-depth study on how well students do with computer-based writing tests by the end of the year.

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week as Study Eyes 4th Graders’ Readiness for Writing Tests on Computer

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