Thursday, February 10, 2005

Some Secondary School Tests Could Go Online, Others Could Go Away


Online testing touted as more efficient way to gauge learning

By Jason Embry
Thursday, February 10, 2005

In the eyes of state Rep. Kent Grusendorf, taking a test with a pencil and paper is so 20th century.

The Arlington Republican and chairman of the House Public Education Committee filed a package of education reforms last week that called for major changes in the state testing program. The most ambitious changes include proposals to administer the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills on computers instead of paper as soon as 2006 and to replace the TAKS in high school with a series of end-of-course tests.

"Online interactive testing will test for the entire curriculum, measure for broader skill levels and give you better feedback," Grusendorf said.

Under the format, all students would start with a basic set of questions. If they get the questions correct, the computer would feed them more difficult ones. Incorrect answers trigger easier questions.

The test not only scores the student at the end, but quickly points out where students need more work and where they excelled. House aides say the online test would be more difficult than TAKS for some students because the computer would feed advanced questions to those who show they're on grade level.

Across the Capitol, Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she supports online TAKS testing as a goal and wants educators to help lawmakers determine its timetable.

Butsaid she's not ready to retire the three-year-old TAKS in high school and replace it with end-of-course tests, which the state largely abandoned when the TAKS came along.

"It's too quick, I think, to turn it back around again," Shapiro said. "I think we're sending mixed messages. If we can find statistics . . . anything that shows that one is better than the other, then I would be happy to look at it."

Shapiro said she has not seen that data yet.

In addition, the Legislative Budget Board cautioned this week that Grusendorf's proposed testing changes carry a heavy price tag, though it did not specify how much. Virginia — with about one-fourth as many students as Texas — has spent $55 million to $60 million per year since 2000 to give its schools the hardware and network upgrades necessary to give state tests online.

Texas' TAKS budget is about $45 million, which pays for developing, administering and scoring the test and releasing the test scores and questions.

The full reform bill that Grusendorf laid out calls for about $1.5 billion more in education spending per year.The Texas school system now costs more than $33 billion a year.

The new money, however, will go quickly: Grusendorf wants about $270 million to fund teacher incentive pay, for example. And with Texasleaders trying not to raise taxes while providing more money for priorities such as bilingual education and teacher pay raises, the cost alone of the test changes could slow them considerably.

A trial run in Texas

The state launched the TAKS in 2003 to determine more thoroughly how well students learn the contents of the state's curriculum. Students take the test in grades three through 11. But Grusendorf said he still hears that teachers tailor their lessons to prepare students for the test and that the TAKS covers too little of the state curriculum.

"There's no way any particular individual teacher can know which questions that particular student is going to get," Grusendorf said of the online tests. "So instead of measuring for a narrow part of the curriculum, you measure for the entire curriculum."

About 22,000 eighth-graders took the TAKS online during a practice run last spring. The students scored slightly lower than they did on paper, but it's unclear whether testing online is more difficult or whether the students weren't giving the test their best effort because they knew the scores did not count, said Lisa Chandler, director of student assessment at the education agency.

Districts told the state agency that students liked the online tests and adapted easily, while teachers liked the speedy feedback and the absence of heavy test booklets. Educators voiced concerns about the limited availability of computers and test security.

Grusendorf said he wants the state to begin switching to the online TAKS in the spring of 2006 but that some schools still will need to give the test on paper for a few years. The bill does not say how the state would provide money for the computers needed to administer the tests.

The end-of-course exams that Grusendorf wants high schools to give would also be administered online.

High schoolers must pass the 11th-grade test to graduate. Grusendorf said an end-of-course test would better measure what students learned recently. "You're not testing two or three years after the kid had the course," he said. "You're individualizing the test for the course they attended."

The end-of-course tests could act as final exams in a class. The bill, which calls for the use of end-of-course tests by the 2008-09 school year, gives the state education commissioner room to specify which end-of-course tests are required for graduation.

Setting an example

In Virginia, only high schools test online, with middle schools starting this year, said Lan Neugent, the state's assistant superintendent for technology and human resources.

The Virginia online tests are basically electronic replicas of the paper versions, which Neugent said allow teachers to give students faster, more precise feedback.

"Teachers are not nearly as tech-savvy as kids are, and there was a great reluctance in the beginning to adapt to something that they didn't think was going to work properly," he said. "But once they got on board and realized this stuff is not that hard, then they realized the things that they could do with it."

Teachers could be slow to get on board in Texas as well, if early reaction is any guide.

"Teachers would prefer that the Legislature study the impact of the current testing system on student learning and the time that teachers have to take to give the tests before making substantive changes to the testing system this session," said Brock Gregg, director of governmental relations for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

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  1. What really makes me crazy about this is the fact that our school finance budget is already a mess, and yet we are toying with buying more equipment and supporting the creation of MORE tests, rather than better tools to measure what students have learned in school.

    When I first heard about the possibility of end-of-course tests coming back, I assumed they would replace the TAKS test at the high school level. Based on this article and Senator Shapiro's comment, I have to draw the conclusion that there will simply be more and more tests until there is no time left to teach any of the curriculum required by the state of Texas.

    Mr. Grusendorg said that with the online testing, "There's no way any particular individual teacher can know which questions that particular student is going to instead of measuring for a narrow part of the curriculum, you measure for the entire curriculum." Part of this claim--that an online version developed much like the GRE, where it throws more difficult questions as you continue to answer questions correctly--is perhaps true. The second part of the claim--that the entire curriculum could be covered on an online test--is absolutely false.

    In English alone, opportunities for students to give presentations, to make clearly developed comparisons across genre, to view or listen are lost in a test format. One of the skills I worked diligently to develop in my students was the construction of logical, comprehensive arguments. Their success hinged not only on the fact that we had created a "safe space" in which they could fail without losing face, but on the fact that they learned to defend their points-of-view in front of peers, sometimes with their help and sometimes without.

    When we put students on the spot in front of a scantron sheet--or in front of the computer, if that is the case--we are limiting how well he or she will perform. Equally intelligent and talented students can vary greatly when confronted with high stakes tests. It seems to me that rather than looking for more ways to "measure" student success, we should look for better ways to show us what students have learned. People complain about the rising costs of education, but there is a very simple way to reign in the cost: ask students what they have learned, and offer them the opportunity to explain their learning to you.

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