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Going digital: Big jump in students taking computer-based state tests

An Elwood Middle School student uses a Chromebook

An Elwood Middle School student uses a Chromebook in teacher Erica Giordano's seventh-grade coding class on Friday. The middle school plans to give the digital version of the state English Language Arts test to students in grades six through eight on Wednesday and Thursday. Credit: Barry Sloan

The digital version of the state English Language Arts exam will be given to elementary and middle school students in nearly one-quarter of Long Island's 124 public school districts this week — a big jump in the use of computer-based tests that is occurring statewide as well.

The majority of schools across the Island and the state still will give the traditional paper-and-pencil exam in some grades, if not all. But some districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties are breaking ground by offering the ELA exam solely on the computer. Some are giving both types, the digital one for some grades and the paper-based test for others.

"I would definitely say in this day and age the students are accustomed to working with computers. Eventually, they will be doing Regents exams and SATs on the computer," said Lisa Mato, director of special programs and data reporting in the Longwood district, which is going full-bore with the computer-based exam this test season.

This week marks the start of the test season, when more than 1.1 million students across New York in grades three through eight are expected to sit for exams in English Language Arts and in math. About 200,000 of those are in the Island's schools. Districts are required by federal law to give the exams in those grades annually.

The state Education Department designates time frames for the tests to be given, and each district chooses two consecutive days within those periods to administer the exams. The computer-based ELA tests can be administered on two days from Monday through April 8, and the paper exam on two days from Tuesday through Thursday.

Similarly, the digital math test can be given on two consecutive days from April 30 through May 7, and the paper-based exam on two days from May 1 through May 3.

Statewide, the number of schools participating in computer-based tests, or CBTs, has grown from about 4 percent in 2017 — the first year they were offered — to more than one-fourth of schools statewide this year for both the ELA and math, the Education Department said.

The department set a goal to have all state assessments given in grades three through eight taken on computers by 2020.

Last year, 27 schools in 19 public school districts on Long Island gave the digital ELA in some grades, according to state figures. This year, that has risen to 66 public schools in 29 districts — 20 in Suffolk and nine in Nassau, according to the Education Department. Officials in Albany said they have received reports from educators that students like the computer-based exams. 

"More importantly," state officials said in a statement, these tests "will help prepare students for the 21st century, where most career paths that our students will embark upon will include some element of technology." The digital test "has the potential to make our assessments even better instructional tools by providing easier access to students’ written responses that principals, educators, and parents can review."

For the first time, the Longwood school district is offering both the computer-based ELA and the math exams to all students in grades three through eight. About 4,000 students are eligible to take the tests, and the district supplies them with Chromebooks.

The district piloted digital testing about four years ago in a handful of grades and has expanded each year since. This year, the ELA test will be given on Tuesday and Wednesday in grades three, five and seven, and on Thursday and Friday in grades four, six and eight.

Mato said the district will "never go back to pencil and paper."

In the Elwood district, Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said all 540 students at Elwood Middle School, which has grades six through eight, will be given digital ELA exams this year for the first time.

The district has held trial runs to make sure that all the students logging in at once would not crash the system. The middle schoolers are slated to start taking the exam Wednesday on school-issued Chromebooks.

For many students, "most of their work and assessments for class assignments is done electronically," Bossert said, so it made sense to go with computer-based exams.

"We are aware that one day it won't be an option. We anticipate that in the future all testing will be electronic," he said.

Both Bossert and Mato said the prep work a district must do to get ready for computer-based testing is less than what is needed for paper-and-pencil exams. It also eases collection of the assessments when testing is over.

"When you receive booklets, you have to make sure they are labeled correctly and collected and accounted for," Bossert said. "That will all be limited by the electronic assessments."

A leader of the state's largest teacher union, however, said the adoption of computer-based testing has been too quick.

Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of New York State United Teachers, said there have been reports of technological glitches. Some districts do not have the technical capacity to give such exams, she said, and students who do not have access to computers at home may not do as well on a digital test.

"It is problematic, and we want the rollout slowed," she said, adding that the Education Department should provide research showing that a computer-based exam would not negatively affect a child's score. She also questioned whether it is appropriate for a child as young as 8 to take a digital test.

Last year, state education leaders were concerned about the integrity of the state fifth-grade English Language Arts exam after images of multiple pages of the test were posted on a West Babylon parent Facebook page.

There also was a technical problem on one ELA test day that caused delays for some students, who had difficulty logging in and connecting to the network. The Education Department required the exam vendor, Questar Assessment Inc., to analyze the problem and devise a corrective plan.

Questar developed that technical improvement plan, the department said, and was required to institute a series of changes to improve its capacity to handle the CBT administration "without any disruptions."

With the start of paper-based testing Tuesday also comes the possibility of significant boycotts of the exams.

Test refusals on the Island, known as the epicenter of the opt-out movement, have run much higher than the state average — about 49.1 percent on the ELA in April 2018, according to a Newsday survey with responses from 115 of the 124 districts. The statewide average, according to the Education Department, was 18 percent.

Opt-out activists have long said the tests do not accurately measure student achievement and asserted that too much class time is devoted to test preparation.

Jeanette Deutermann, lead organizer of the LI Opt Out movement, said Friday that the boycott momentum on the Island continues. Her group has heard from many parents of third-graders who plan to refuse the tests for their children for the first time, she said.

"We have such an extensive network at this point that we are able to get the word out," Deutermann said. Education Commissioner MaryEllen  Elia, she said, is using the testing system "as a weapon rather than a system of support, and parents see it and don't like it."

Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said that Elia and the state Board of Regents have listened to the concerns of parents and teachers and made significant changes to the exams. Last year, the test-taking time was reduced from three days to two, and teachers have evaluated and selected many questions for the test.

"This year, New York State teachers reviewed all questions for inclusion on the assessments at least six times. It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests, and we want them to have all the facts so they can make an informed decision,” DeSantis said in a statement.

DiBrango said there are fundamental flaws in the testing system for grades three through eight, and the state should take corrective actions that include changing scoring benchmarks. She said that when the state labels just 22 percent of students proficient on eighth-grade math exams, but then 70 percent pass the Algebra Regents the very next year, "Something is broken."

"This continues to label our students as failing when they are not," she said. "Trust has been been broken between the state and parents because these tests are flawed."

Bossert, who also is president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said school leaders have consistently informed parents as the time for the testing has approached.

"I think that each superintendent works with their stakeholders to make sure the correct information is communicated, to make sure parents get all the correct information about the tests, so parents can make the responsible decision that is best for their child," he said.

Educators in the Wyandanch district have planned a rally for mid-April in support of the exam, with Superintendent Mary Jones saying in a statement that the Wyandanch school board and teachers agree not to shrink from the controversial test, but to "rise higher and better prepare their teachers and scholars for successful test-taking."

Students’ scores on the standardized tests do not affect their ability to move on to the next grade, nor are they currently used in teacher performance evaluations.

The Education Department has said that the tests provide a useful measure of a child’s academic progress, and that parents and teachers can view the score reports — to be received by districts in the summer — as an indicator of skill level as compared with other students across the state. The agency also has said that the assessments help in evaluating what instruction is and isn’t working, identifying achievement gaps among student populations and discerning how well students are learning what is taught.

New York State rolled out its first tests based on the national Common Core academic standards in spring 2013. The new assessments were troubled from the start: Scores of teachers complained the Education Department had not supplied adequate guides to the brand-new curriculum, many parents expressed deep concern about test questions and plunging passage rates, and test refusals began to occur on a small scale.

In the 2015 test season, with grassroots activism, boycotts ballooned statewide, and 20 percent of eligible students opted out of the ELA and math tests. The refusal rate statewide was 21 percent in 2016 and 19 percent in 2017.

Test refusals on the Island have run much higher than the state average, with the majority of the 124 districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties having boycott rates of more than 40 percent.

In May 2017, the Board of Regents dropped the "Common Core" label, adopted the name "Next Generation Learning Standards" for New York's academic guidelines, and approved amended English and math standards in September 2017.

The Education Department has set spring 2021 for administration of new tests in grades three through eight that are aligned with the Next Generation Learning Standards.

The test season

State tests in English Language Arts and mathematics for students in grades three through eight are given during time frames designated by the state Education Department.

Individual school districts have chosen two consecutive days within those windows of time to administer the exams. Within a district, test days may differ by school and even by grades within a school.

Districts also choose whether to give digital exams or traditional paper-and-pencil tests. This, too, may vary by school and by grades.

Parents and students should check with their school to be certain of the days tests will be given, and whether those tests will be computer-based or paper-based exams.

English Language Arts

Computer-based: Monday — April 8

Paper-based: Tuesday — Thursday

Math

Computer-based: April 30 — May 7

Paper-based: May 1 — 3

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