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3 LI school districts to try out computer-based tests

Students listen to a lecture on May 1,

Students listen to a lecture on May 1, 2013. Credit: Heather Walsh

Three Long Island school districts are among more than 100 statewide participating in field tests of a new computer-based system -- one type of electronic exam under development that soon may be required in schools across New York.

Elementary school students in the Garden City and Northport-East Northport school districts are taking part in field tests devised by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, according to the state Department of Education. High school students in the North Shore district are expected to participate in the geometry exams, state officials said.

"We really don't want to test students more, but we realize computer-based and generated tests is the way of the future," said Robert Feirsen, superintendent of the Garden City district. "We wanted to see how that works, and we want to see how the students react to that kind of format."

The Northport-East Northport district administered field tests at the end of March, the Education Department said. The district also is scheduled for end-of-year field tests, which must be administered between May 5 and June 6. Officials there did not return calls for comment.

The North Shore district administered the geometry test the week of April 7 and is scheduled for the geometry end-of-year assessment as well, according to the state. The Garden City district has scheduled its field tests in mid-May.


Field tests in 14 states

New York is one of 14 states where PARCC, a multistate consortium, is holding field tests this spring. The dry runs are intended to give educators a chance to see how the computer-based exams work, and allow schools to check their readiness for the test in those states that plan to implement it in the 2014-15 school year.

Usage of the new computer-based tests is growing across the country as states forgo their own exams for those said to better measure students' grasp of the national Common Core academic standards, adopted by 44 states, including New York. The standards, as well as the coursework and tests stemming from them, have been a focal point of heated debate here and in several other states.

Proponents say the PARCC test systems better measure complex thinking, problem-solving and a student's ability to apply knowledge, besting traditional multiple-choice and short-answer questions.

The state Board of Regents has not decided whether the PARCC system will be used in New York. The Education Department has delayed consideration of adopting PARCC to no earlier than the 2015-16 school year, according to a Regents document issued in February.

Administrators in Long Island school districts have expressed major concerns about the cost of implementing PARCC or other computer-based exams, and say it also poses daunting logistical problems, including how to find enough space to administer the tests to students securely and where to store scores of computers.

PARCC, launched in 2010, is a group of states working together to develop assessments that measure whether students are on track to be successful in college and their careers. The computer-based K-12 assessments in mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy cover kindergarten through 12th grade and are aligned with the Common Core standards.

New York officials already decided against another 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.

More than one million students nationwide are participating in these field tests, which include components of the test but not the entire exam, said Laura Slover, chief executive of PARCC. Field testing began March 24 and goes through June 6.

"We are testing the test, figuring out what works and what could be better before the full rollout," Slover said.

Students will be surveyed after they take the exam, she said. "Kids will have an opportunity to provide direct feedback that can be used to make direct improvements to the test," Slover said.


State can use its own tests

If the Regents do not adopt the PARCC system, New York could phase in its own computer-based tests, perhaps modifying Common Core-focused assessments being given this spring, Education Department officials have said.

Virtually all schools statewide eventually will have to participate in field testing of a computer-based exam, but those that participated in the PARCC field tests will be excused from corresponding New York State field tests, department spokesman Tom Dunn said.

"PARCC is trying to do something exciting using technology to help design better tests that are more like instruction," Dunn said.

Schools will administer either performance-based assessments, given when about 75 percent of the school year has been completed, or end-of-year assessments, when the year's instruction is about 90 percent complete. Some will give both.

In the North Shore school district, where iPads are distributed to students in grades 6-12, students in ninth-grade geometry will take the field test in coming weeks.

"We have the technology to be able to do it online," Superintendent Ed Melnick said. He added, "Based on everything we have seen about PARCC, it is far superior in testing conceptual understanding within an authentic context."

Results from the field tests will not be counted toward a student's grade or a school's standing.

In Garden City, the field test of English Language Arts will take place in a computer lab with a couple of classes in the fourth grade. The end-of-year assessment will take place in mid-May.

"We think the students will be intrigued by the format," Feirsen said. "It is a low-risk way of finding out some information that is valuable to us."



Computer-based tests said to be better


The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is a consortium of about 15 states working to develop computer-based tests for K-12 in mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy. The assessments are aligned with the Common Core academic standards, which New York adopted in 2010 and have been a source of controversy here and in other states.

Proponents say the computer-based tests will be superior to traditional multiple-choice and short-answer exams, allowing states to tailor tests in more sophisticated ways to specific class-level and students' needs.

In practice, for example, a typical ELA exam now requires students to read a passage and respond to several multiple-choice questions based on the passage. A computer-based test may require students to demonstrate deeper analytical thinking by requiring them to go back into the passage and highlight evidence to back up their answers.

Math questions are likely to be more complex, multi-step problems that require solid computation skills.

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