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Pencils Down as California K-12 Testing Enters Computer Age

Many districts across the state kicked off computerized Common Core exams last week, and while relatively few schools opted to administer the exams the first week in a six-week testing window, no major problems were reported.

by Jill Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle / March 16, 2015

(Tribune News Service) -- For the first time in the history of standardized testing in California, students didn’t pick up a No. 2 pencil to show what they know. They hit the power button.

Many districts across the state, including San Francisco, kicked off computerized Common Core exams last week, and while relatively few schools opted to administer the exams the first week in a six-week testing window, no major problems were reported.

Assessment administrators, who spent many sleepless nights worrying about whether computers would crash or students would panic at a keyboard prompt, issued a preliminary sigh of relief.

“I think we’re in quite good shape,” said John Burke, supervisor of San Francisco Unified’s Achievement Assessments Office. Burke, however, knows that computers can freeze and can’t be be fixed by a quick trip to the pencil sharpener.

“What really keeps me up at night is really an individual student sitting there and being frustrated,” Burke said. “But overall, we see the system works. The wireless works.”

Students in grades three through eight will take the new Smarter Balanced math and English tests, as will students in grade 11, although the testing window for high school juniors starts in mid-April.

The exams include old-fashioned multiple-choice questions and fill-in-the-blank items as well as long-form writing requirements. The computerized tests are adaptive, meaning that as the student answers, the program adjusts the difficulty level based on correct or incorrect responses to pinpoint each child’s proficiency in every skill assessed.

The new Common Core curriculum emphasizes critical thinking and real-world problem solving rather than rote learning and solving repetitive equations. Students are expected to explain their thinking in writing, whether in math or English class.

“These tests reflect the exciting changes taking place in California classrooms,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement. “Instead of being asked to merely pick out multiple-choice answers, students are being tested on their ability to reason and think. They must draw logical conclusions and cite evidence from what they have read, and they must solve real-world math problems.”

Yet many state and local education officials wonder whether the test results will reflect students’ knowledge of the material or their keyboard proficiency.

“Certainly the keyboarding skills, I saw it getting in the way last year,” Burke said, referring to practice tests in 2014. “It is hard for them to compose and type at the same time.”

Students also need to be able to use a mouse and manipulate a cursor to drag and drop words, phrases or math formulas across the computer screen.

“I think everyone agrees that it will probably get in the way,” Burke said.

Yet using a computer and its keyboard is also a critical skill and ultimately part of what students should know and be able to demonstrate, officials said. And frankly, there’s no going back now, state education leaders said.

It’s all about “patience, persistence and humility,” said Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education. “The last one means we are open to continuous improvement of the assessment and its analysis.”

Districts across the state and country have spent months if not a few years preparing for the new tests — buying computers, getting high-speed wireless in schools, training teachers, giving students practice tests.

In San Francisco, where three schools started testing this week, there is at least one computer for every student being tested. Schools are using desktop computers, Chromebooks, PCs or Apple laptops, as well as a handful of iPads. The district has invested in computer carts that carry laptops to classrooms so students can still take the test in a place they feel comfortable.

In Oakland, students will begin testing on March 30, with one computer for every three students, district officials said.

“We do not foresee any issues from a technology perspective,” said Tracey Logan, the district’s director of technology. “All schools will have wireless in every classroom by the time they take the (test). The last batch of schools is having wireless installed as we speak.”

The test is not timed, so students have as much time as they want to finish the test, which means that if a computer crashes, there’s time to reboot it or switch to another computer.

The most important thing, Burke said, is that “everyone is staying relaxed.”

“When the computer freezes, you’ve got to restart (the machine),” he said. “If the adults stay kind of calm, I think the students do too.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @jilltucker


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