Tech upgrades to prepare schools for online testing -- Gazette.Net


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About $13 million in technology upgrades in Prince George's County elementary schools over the next two years could provide the necessary equipment for all 165 elementary and middle schools to offer the state's annual science assessment online.

This spring, 32 of the county's elementary schools will administer the paper-and-pencil version of the science portion of the Maryland School Assessment, which is taken by fifth- and eighth-grade students — due in part to computers with insufficient memory or speed, or the lack of a computer lab, said Pauline Carey, a test administration specialist for the county school system.

The technology refresh efforts will provide teachers and administrators with new computers by Oct. 31 at a cost of about $4 million, W. Wesley Watts Jr., the school system's chief information officer, wrote in an email to The Gazette.

Schools then will receive a $150 per-pupil allotment during the 2013-14 school year to purchase equipment for mobile computer labs, interactive whiteboards and other technology, Watts wrote. This could cost about $9 million, depending on actual enrollment figures.

“Schools spend the funds to meet their needs,” Paul Mazza, the school system's director of testing, wrote in an email to The Gazette. “In some cases [the] testing [office] would like to see more computers/devices available for use in the testing program, but schools may spend the funds to enhance their computer-based instructional efforts.”

More than 130 of the 165 Prince George's County elementary and middle schools will administer the science portion of the Maryland School Assessment online starting April 16.

“The testing world meets the students' world, because that's their medium of choice,” Carey said.

About 120 schools offered the test online last year, Carey said.

“PGCPS is in a good position to move to online testing so long as the online tests are such that we can use devices other than computers,” Mazza wrote, citing one school's use of iPads to take a survey this spring.

The 46 to 48 questions on the online science MSA look almost identical to the paper-and-pencil versions, Carey said, except for one pilot question that is not scored but requires students to interact with the material.

Students could be asked to organize animal and plant icons into a food chain sequence or graph the speeds and stopping distance of cars, Carey said.

“You are able to get at higher-order thinking skills than you can with a paper-and-pencil test,” said Anne O'Brien, the deputy director of the Learning First Alliance, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for strengthening public schools.

Nationally, some assessments also collect data on the length of time students spend on each question, allowing teachers to identify the concepts with which students are struggling, O'Brien said.

But O'Brien cautioned that designers of online assessments must be careful to evaluate the correct knowledge and skills, not the students' fluency with technology.

“As standardized tests move to the online format, you'll have to see more technology in the classrooms to make sure you're testing what [students] actually know rather than their familiarity with the testing method,” she said.

Schools have given each fifth- and eighth-grade student the opportunity to work with the online test format and its available tools, such as highlight and eliminate functions and a built-in calculator, Carey said. Practice tests are available on testmaker Pearson's website.

Research shows no statistical difference between how students perform on tests given on paper versus electronically, Carey said.

The testing window for the science MSA begins April 16 and ends May 4. Each school chooses two days during that period on which to administer the test, Carey said.

Two paper versions of the science test are offered to ensure test security, Carey said, and 10 online versions, which are less expensive to tweak, are administered over two days.

The Maryland State Department of Education pays per-pupil costs associated with testing, and there is no significant difference in the cost of administering the online version — which debuted in the state in 2008 — compared with the paper version, Bill Reinhard, an MSDE spokesman, wrote in an email to The Gazette.

Some school systems in Maryland offer online testing as they acquire the technological resources, but all schools statewide will be moving to online assessments under the new Common Core standards that most states have agreed to adopt, Reinhard wrote.

“It's going to be exciting to see the changes,” Carey said. “The testing with be more innovative and interesting, because the child will be interacting with the material.

“They're engaged differently. They enjoy the change. They enjoy the medium.”

abrownback@gazette.net