Janesville31.7°

School officials want standardized tests computerized

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
January 13, 2008
— Computers were supposed to help us be more efficient and save us money.

The experts said computers would give us more time to focus on what’s important because we wouldn’t be so tied up with handling stacks of paper.


Schools spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1990s to increase and upgrade their computer systems. Janesville School District voters, for example, decided in 1997 to borrow about $10 million to install hundreds of computers at schools and link them to the Internet. Schools continue to spend money each year to keep those computers up to date.


And yet, when it comes to Wisconsin’s standardized testing system, students still use No. 2 pencils to fill in the circles on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, just as their parents and grandparents did.


The state has an opportunity to get into the 21st century, but it’s dragging its feet.


At least, that’s the perception of Janesville school officials. They’re joining other districts to pressure the state Department of Public Instruction to take the plunge into computer-based testing.


The Janesville School Board is championing a resolution calling for change at the upcoming Wisconsin Association of School Boards delegate assembly.


And Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon, the chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, is writing legislation that would force the state to change.


Davis said the DPI could make the change on its own.


“They don’t appear to be willing to do it, so I’m working on legislation that would modernize the system,” Davis said.


Lynette Russell, director of the Office of Accountability for DPI, says there are no easy answers. She said it takes hundreds of pages of technical documentation to get a test approved by the federal government.


“I don’t think it automatically makes it better just because you put it on the computer,” Russell said.


Davis and others believe that a computer-based test, along with a different way of reporting the test results, would greatly improve the system, improve education and might even save money in the long run.


Results delayed


The state uses a series of tests known as the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam to report progress—or lack of it—to the federal government under the No Child Left Behind Legislation.


The Janesville district’s testing coordinator, Ruth Robinson, finds fault with Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam:


-- It doesn’t give credit to schools that make substantial progress, even though they have many students performing below the required standards.


-- It doesn’t hold schools accountable if they have a large number of high-scoring students but fail to challenge those students in the classroom.


-- Results are reported months after the tests are taken, making them almost useless for improving teaching or correcting students’ weaknesses during the same school year.


Something called a “growth model” testing system would take care of the first two points. Growth model assessment often is linked to a computer-based test, which can give much faster results.


Now, the state test results are available for individual students about four months after they take the tests. Reports of grade-level, school and district results aren’t ready for six months, Robinson said.


That means a third-grade teacher, for example, can’t tell how well she has taught her class until after the school year is over, Robinson said.


Online testing would give instant results, Robinson said. That same teacher would know right away if her students failed to understand a key idea in math or English. Then, the teacher could adjust her lesson plans to make sure students were up to speed before they moved on to the next grade level.


Online alternative


Some schools are spending their own dollars to give teachers faster results. Janesville and more than 100 other districts buy online tests called Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP.


The MAP tests give teachers almost instantaneous results.


Janesville pays $70,000 a year for the MAP test, Robinson said.


So why not use the MAP test statewide and kill two birds with one stone?


Can’t do it, DPI’s Russell said.


For one thing, the MAP test isn’t aligned to the state academic standards in the same way as the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, Russell said.


No Child Left Behind requires a test that tests student knowledge of the standards.


The MAP test asks questions that relate to the standards, but that’s not the same thing as being thoroughly aligned, Russell said.


The MAP test also is an “adaptive test,” and that’s a problem, Russell said.


MAP automatically makes its questions easier if a student is marking wrong answers, and it gives above-grade-level questions if the student is getting mostly correct answers.


No Child Left Behind requires that students be tested on the standards for their grade level, Russell said, and MAP doesn’t provide that.


That’s easily fixed, Robinson responds. Just add enough grade-level questions to satisfy No Child Left Behind.


An adaptive test also has an advantage, Robinson said: It will tell the teacher precisely at what level the student is functioning. The Wisconsin Concepts and Knowledge Exam will tell only how the student is doing in relation to the standards for his grade level.


Electronic issues


Russell said a multiple-choice online exam can’t test students’ thinking abilities—as required in state standards—because students can’t write to explain their thinking.


And not all districts would be able to handle online testing because they lack computers, Russell said. Not only that, but children who have extensive computer experience would have an instant advantage over those who don’t.


So some way would have to be worked out to make the tests fair, Russell said.


Robinson said these are surmountable problems.


“The frustrating thing from my point of view is that there are a half dozen vendors around the country that have been providing this kind of thing for years,” Robinson said. “… It appears to me that (DPI) is not entirely willing to do the work.”


Davis said he hopes to have his legislation ready in February or March.


Russell said DPI doesn’t have its head in the sand; it is entering into a number of research studies on growth-model testing this year.


TESTING CONTRACT


The state is paying $8 million this year to CTB McGraw Hill to supply the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam.


The contract includes development, production, scoring, reporting and research, said Lynette Russell, director of the state Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Accountability.


Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon, said the contract with CTB is up for renewal in two years, so a good time to make changes would be in the 2011-13 state budget.



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