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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Computer based testing explained.

By Greg Sampson

Computer Based Testing
One Man’s Field Report

Recently, I’ve been reading about the Pearson server crash and how it has affected FCAT testing throughout the state. Naturally, parents and the public are up in arms over the disruption to the disruption that testing presents to instruction. It was horrible and I’ll leave it readers to judge how much umbrage they should display against the testing companies and the phonies who hire them yet posture against them when problems happen.

Update your iPhone lately? Whenever technology is involved, problems happen.

The real issues with computer-based tests (CBT) are not in the once in a decade server crash, but the little glitches that make testing a trial for students.

1.       CBT comes with anti-cheating provisions. One is that students cannot attempt to do anything else while the testing software is active, or they are kicked out of the test. That prevents them from firing up a browser and Googling answers to the test questions. That makes sense. Unfortunately, that means that when the computer tries to do anything outside of testing, the student is thrown out of the test. JAVA update, anyone? That was last year’s bugaboo. This year Windows updates are forcing themselves onto student computers while they test. They are kicked out of the test. For some, it happens multiple times; it depends upon the computer they are using and how current it is. It can take two to ten minutes accomplishing a restart. This really interrupts a student’s ability to concentrate on a reading passage and think about answering questions.

Oh, I know, our technology department is supposed to embargo updates during the testing window. They aren’t.

Readers must realize this is routine with CBT. It goes on throughout the test sessions.

2.       CBT testing is a different experience. Students will approach a test as a survey—read and click—unless they are trained differently. My school has outperformed her westside peers for two years in the Algebra EOC by 10 percentage points or better. Is it because our students or our teaching is so much better? Or because I take the time as instructional coach (in previous years, also the test coordinator) to visit every classroom and talk to the students about how important it is to use the work folder they are given and work every problem out with the paper and their pencil? The ones who do this tend to pass; the others don’t.

Students also get a worksheet to take notes for FCAT reading. None of them use it. I wonder if this is a part of their low performance? It does get tedious flipping back and forth between screens. The students can use a notepad on the computer to record their ideas, but here’s the rub: the notepad is individual to each screen. So whatever notes a student takes while reading the passage are not accessible when the student is reading a test question on the passage unless the student goes back to the passage screen. All that clicking back and forth—it gets in the way of students testing at their level of accomplished skill and understanding.

3.       With testing windows now three and a half weeks or longer, actually FCAT now runs into EOC testing without interruption, there is no way a school can shut down and keep students from moving according to their normal schedules. The architecture of schools makes it hard for schools to isolate their testing rooms from the rest of the school. And everyone knows how kids will stay quiet for hours because adults asked them not to talk.

Bottom line: testing rooms are often rocked with student noise during times of transition or when too many students are out of classrooms on hall passes. Testing students complain that they cannot concentrate because of the noise.

By the way, I don’t want to hear from those lucky schools that have received a laptop cart per classroom and the bandwidth to match. Most of us aren’t that lucky. We will wait for the Second Coming before we are similarly equipped. That’s not a barb at the District; I’m talking reality or did you miss news reports of the Superintendent’s budget presentation to the Board? And we’re going to digital textbooks next year in Middle School Math. God help us. But this post is about CBT and I will stop this tangent.

4.       Every year, before testing begins, we do an infrastructure test to make sure our testing locations, wireless access, bandwidth, desktop connections, district cache servers, etc. will handle the load. But schools sometimes find they need to make changes afterward. At my school, we added a new location. When I was called to help troubleshoot computer issues, I noticed how slow the student laptops were loading new pages after students clicked next.

Many times it’s not a spectacular crash like the Pearson problem that got into the news. It’s slow responding equipment. On EOCs where students are allowed extra time if they need it to finish a test, that may not be an issue. But the FCAT is strictly timed. If a student struggles to finish on time because of balky equipment, what do we tell them? “It sucks to be you?”

Please stay with me on this. What do students typically do when told they are running out of time? “You have ten minutes left to finish.”

They rush through the remaining questions and randomly click answers.

5.       And what about the environment? We had to test on the stage in the gym. Unfortunately, it got hot this week. It is stifling on that stage. Students sweat, they ask for water, they don’t want to stay. They rush through the test. They are uncomfortable. Today I had a girl take off her sweatshirt; her spaghetti-strapped shirt underneath violated our dress code. But there was nothing I could say. I sympathized with her need to be comfortable during a test session.
6.       CBT is limited. You cannot ask students to show work or explain their reasoning. All they can do is click an answer choice, or for math, type numbers into a box. You want them to write an explanation of their thinking, math, reading, Civic, history, science or otherwise? Don’t put that on a computer test. You will not know if you are testing their knowledge, understanding, or only their ability to touch-type on a QWERTY keyboard.

Dear readers of this blog, I hope this lengthy post has enlightened you to some of the issues we encounter as we conduct computer-based testing as our legislature had mandated.

1 comment:

  1. What a thought provoking and well written piece! I will be sharing this with parents.