or she answered previously. When students sit down to take the test again, "it picks up at the same level where they stopped, so you can continue your measurement. But it also takes out any questions that the student has already seen," he said.

Along with the adaptive questions, tests for grades three through eight also will include some standard questions for every student in a given grade, which Idaho is adding this spring in order to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

After finishing a test, the student's preliminary score appears immediately on the screen. That night, the school's server uploads all students' answers and NWEA checks them for any irregularities that could render a test invalid and compiles reports. The following day, each teacher can log onto NWEA's Web site with a password to get his or her class's scores.

NWEA also offers school-wide and district-wide reports, including historical data, within 72 hours. "Beginning this fall, they will also have the ability to disaggregate by ethnic groups, by special ed or whatever other parameters they've given us," Patterson said.

A few schools with slower Internet connections receive the tests on CD-ROM, Patterson said. Transmitting students' answers back to NWEA is no problem, however, since they involve a great deal less data than the tests themselves. Schools that give the paper-and-pencil tests send the completed answer sheets to NWEA, where they're scanned to capture the data.

Labs Required

To prepare for the Idaho Standards Achievements Tests, each school needed a computer lab. "There were quite a few schools that didn't have labs," Hawkins said, adding that nearly all have created them by now. Many schools redeployed under-utilized classroom computers to gather the required number of machines in one room, and the workstations don't need to be expensive to handle the tests. "What I've seen done is low-end Pentiums with at least 32 MB of RAM," he said.

The workstations in the lab must be networked to a dedicated server. "For most school districts that have good connectivity among the buildings, a server per district will work," Hawkins said. Where connectivity isn't adequate, districts need one server per building.

Using adaptive tests to measure achievement allows teachers to tailor their instruction to different students' needs. The computerized system, with its quick turnaround, helps them fine-tune their lesson plans without delay. In Meridian, for example, the teachers have the results within 24 hours after giving tests at the start of the fall term, Clark said. "It allows them then to look at the year's curriculum and see what skills students have mastered, and what skills and knowledge students still need to work on. So they're targeting their instructional time to things they need to work on in order to grow."

Meridian shifted from its district-wide testing program to the state program this year; the tests are similar in content, Clark said.

Teachers will likely put students' scores to use as soon as possible, but Idaho considers the testing program a pilot until 2005, McGee said. During this time, education officials will make any necessary adjustments to the questions. "But also, when we call it a pilot phase, we don't want to tie it to any teacher accountability, because we want teachers to learn how to really use the data effectively to affect teaching." Training sessions starting in October will show teachers how to interpret and respond to the scores, she said.

If teachers throughout Idaho are similar to their colleagues in the Meridian school district, they will like what they learn in those sessions. "We've been delighted over the four years with the kind of data we've received from the testing and how it has empowered our instruction and changed how we teach," Clark said.

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer