Putting Computers to the Test

Idaho measures students' progress with exams that automatically adjust to each child's abilities.

by / September 24, 2002
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 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
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