LI school officials wary of computer-based testing plan

Eighth-grade students at Herricks Middle School use computers Eighth-grade students at Herricks Middle School use computers to take a test while Lydia Begley, Nassau BOCES associate superintendent for educational services, watches. (April 2, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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A vocal contingent of Long Island school officials is calling into question the state's plan to move to computer-based testing, saying districts can't afford to make the switch quickly and they doubt its academic merit.

The state Board of Regents is considering which high-tech exams to adopt and is expected to make a decision in the coming months. The tests initially would replace English and math exams in grades 3-8. The new, computerized assessments could be mandated by the fall of 2014.

No matter what the Regents decide, local district officials said it will require a massive investment in computers, software and bandwidth.

"It's going to make a bad situation worse regarding testing and finances," said Anna Hunderfund, superintendent of the Locust Valley district. "The districts can't survive with these crazy, unfunded mandates — and this will be the mother of them all."

The 2,100-student district estimates it would spend $2 million just to institute one computer-based system that could be chosen, she said.

Despite the pushback, computer-based tests are taking hold across the country as states toss their own exams for those said to better measure students' grasp of the national Common Core academic standards, adopted by 45 states, including New York.

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The more rigorous standards, pushed by the Obama administration, are designed to promote "college and career readiness." Students across New York in grades 3-8 have begun taking the first state tests created with the Common Core in mind. The exams will be on paper.

Some parents on Long Island and elsewhere in the state, angered by what they said is "overtesting," have mounted an opt-out drive, refusing to seat their children for the exams.

As the stakes go higher and assessments grow more difficult, concerns about cheating have emerged. The Nassau County district attorney is investigating the Glen Cove City School District over allegations that teachers coached elementary students on state tests in 2012.

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States develop system

The Regents are closely eyeing a computerized testing system under development by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, known as PARCC, a consortium of 22 states, including New York.

Its exams will be tested next school year and will be available for full-scale implementation by the 2014-15 academic year.

If PARCC is defeated, the state could phase in its own computer-based tests, perhaps modifying the round of Common Core-focused assessments debuting in classrooms this month, Education Department officials said.

New York officials decided against the testing system proposed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, made up of 25 states. PARCC and Smarter Balanced were funded with $330 million in federal grants.

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Local school districts — worried about PARCC's cost and timeline — said it would pose several logistical problems, including where to house the computers and administer the exams.

Cost is a universal concern, a Newsday survey of nearly every "PARCC state" found, with almost all hoping for increased federal aid. Oklahoma wants to divert lottery proceeds for the test effort.

Some state officials said bulk purchasing should drive down hardware and software costs, and cited being able to use the new technology for classroom instruction.

Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced test systems will better measure complex thinking, problem-solving and a student's ability to apply knowledge, proponents said.

Supporter: Shows thinking

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Current multiple-choice and short-answer questions "cannot get at divergent thinking or a student's ability to actually communicate," said Joan Herman, co-director emeritus of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. She has studied testing for 30 years and said both systems reflect major advances in student assessment.

Computerized tests allow children to "show what they are thinking," Herman said. Even the essay portions of the exams eventually may be scored electronically, allowing a quicker turnaround so schools can see where students fall short.

Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced allow students to create graphics, watch videos and listen to audio clips, allowing them to manipulate an item or highlight text. The only major difference is that the Smarter Balanced tests are adaptive, becoming easier or harder depending upon student responses.

John White, superintendent of education for Louisiana since January 2012, spent years working in the New York City school system's senior management and chides those who oppose upgrading.

"I would really urge that we not complain about the cost of buying computers in the 21st century," he said. "We have got to get away from this idea that technology is an add-on to education. Technology is education."

But local superintendents said the move comes at a bad time, with other expensive, unfunded mandates and a property-tax cap that limits revenue. State aid and other grants could help defray costs, but local districts said they will likely be stuck with most of the bill.

The North Babylon district, which has laid off 68 educators since 2009, might have to lease some 300 laptops to meet requirements and would have to drastically improve its wireless connection, superintendent Pat Godek said. The price tag could be about $175,000 in the first year.

Value to kids questioned

Godek said she can't worry too much about which system the state will pick — she has to be prepared for any outcome. And she's not sure about the tests' value for students.

"I think only time is going to tell if there is real benefit," she said.

Locust Valley might have to trim college-level International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs to make up the cost, superintendent Hunderfund said.

Some districts, including East Moriches, are more prepared than others, but still want the plan to be delayed.

"I think the best-case scenario is that lawmakers are hearing the concern of how we are going to finance this with the current constraints we are under," superintendent Charles Russo said.

The Long Beach schools, like others, are concerned about how the devices will be used.

"Why are we spending money on purchasing technology that is for the purpose of assessment and not for the purpose of learning?" asked superintendent David Weiss, who said he generally supports the move to computer-based testing.

State: Multiple uses

State officials said they would not mandate such a technology upgrade simply for tests and that the new equipment will have many uses.

Sean Feeney, principal of The Wheatley School in the East Williston district, said the state is moving far too quickly. A change so radical and sweeping should take several years and undergo extensive preparation through pilot programs, he said.

He's also concerned about the burden on students, particularly young ones.

"I don't believe third- and fourth-graders need four hours of testing twice a year," said Feeney, who is president of the Nassau County High School Principals Association.

Herman, the testing expert at UCLA, said this is by far the swiftest switch she's seen in the three decades she has studied testing.

"It's an incredibly fast timeline," she said. "The sentiment was that the test had to change fast to reflect the new Common Core and that if the tests didn't change, curriculum, teaching and learning wouldn't change."

TESTS ON COMPUTERS

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is a consortium of 22 states, plus the U.S. Virgin Islands, working to develop computer-based tests in English and math for grades K-12.

WHEN: The tests, which will be used in a pilot program next school year, will be ready for implementation in 2014-15. Some education experts say they better measure students' skills and knowledge.

EXPENSE: PARCC's costs are not finalized but require a major technology investment and upgrade by local school districts.

FUNDING: PARCC received an $186 million grant through the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top program.

JO NAPOLITANO

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