With the ongoing movement toward statewide education standards, the search for the best tools to measure student learning at the state level has begun. Idaho, for example, has chosen "level testing," a system that gauges the skills each child has mastered compared with benchmarks set for his or her grade.

As Idaho pilots the new tests this year, few of the second through ninth graders taking them will need to sharpen their number-two pencils - most schools will download the exams over the Internet and serve them up to students on computers.

Although the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) has supplied computerized tests to about 850 school districts in 37 states, Idaho is the first to implement its tests statewide, said Michael Patterson, director of information technology for the not-for-profit organization in Portland, Ore.

Computers simplify a key element of level testing, tailoring questions individually to each student's abilities. "As the student answers questions correctly, the test gets more difficult. As he answers incorrectly, it gets less difficult," Patterson explained.

NWEA offers paper-and-pencil versions of its "adaptive" tests, but administering them is a somewhat ungainly process. Students first answer a set of qualifying questions; each student then receives a set of questions geared to a certain skill level, based on how many qualifying questions he or she answered correctly.

"When we did this initially, we printed 80,000 tests," recalled Linda Clark, director of instruction at Joint School District 2 in Meridian, Idaho. Meridian has used NWEA's adaptive tests district-wide for reading, math, language and science in grades three through eight for the past four years. It switched to the computerized versions in all areas but science in the fall of 2000.

Convenience and Accuracy

"You can do level tests with paper and pencil, but obviously the computerized versions are more convenient and, I think, over the long haul are more accurate," said Karen McGee, a member of the Idaho State Board of Education and its interim director of assessment and accountability.

Forty-four school districts in Idaho already have worked with NWEA, Patterson said. Starting this year, about 136,000 students in all of Idaho's districts will take state tests in reading, math and language arts annually. All but a handful of the schools - those that lack the necessary equipment - will administer them by computer.

"All students will be tested in the spring and fall to show growth," McGee said. "Teachers will have the option to give it again in mid-year, if they want to see how the children are doing."

To administer the Idaho Standards Achievements Tests, the school first uploads its class roster to the NWEA. The association then transmits the test and its Test Taker software over the Internet to a server at the school or at a district office. "The school district then needs to install the Test Taker application to each of the workstations that they're going to use to do the test," said Dan Hawkins, networking and telecommunications specialist at the Idaho State Department of Education. Schools can use either Windows-based or Macintosh machines.

NWEA employs local servers rather than hosting the tests itself because "most school districts just don't have the bandwidth to get everybody on the Web and have a test," Patterson said. Relying on a local area network rather than the Internet also ensures that students don't experience lags as they take their exams.

Pick Up Where They Left Off

When a group arrives to take a test, the proctor logs onto each workstation, selects the appropriate test and selects the name of the student who will work there, Hawkins said. The student's response to each question is recorded on the local server. To make sure the test is customized for each student's abilities, the system remembers the questions he

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer