State’s paper-and-pencil tests may fade into history

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Sunday, November 29, 2009
— The kids are finished penciling in the bubbles. Janesville school workers collected about 150 cardboard boxes full of tests last week.

In Janesville, that’s about 5,500 test booklets from grades 3-8 and also 10th grade.

Workers checked each box to make sure everything that’s needed is there for the graders of the annual state standardized tests. Then they shipped the tests to CTB/McGraw Hill, the testing company, for grading.

Preliminary results will start coming in next March.

Multiply that process by the rest of Wisconsin’s 425 school districts.

That’s how it’s been for years, but someday soon, the laborious, lengthy process could be turned into a computer-based, online system that delivers crucial data on each student in a matter of days rather than months.

The state Department of Public Instruction is working on plans to completely revamp the testing system.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers announced in August his intention to phase out the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exams, but he said it would take time.

Students will take the old tests at least next fall and maybe for longer, according to a DPI news release.

“New assessments at the elementary and middle school level will likely be computer-based with multiple opportunities to benchmark student progress during the school year,” according to DPI.

That means students would be evaluated at least twice a year, so teachers would know quickly which students need help and which are excelling. That will allow teachers to re-teach material or accelerate the course.

Now, teachers have no information about how their students did on the tests until months later. That’s why the Janesville School District buys an online test called Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, to track learning throughout the year.

And teachers track students’ progress with their own in-class tests, of course. DPI said its new system would include state, district, and classroom assessments.

DPI also pledged that the new system would be more responsive to students’ and teachers’ needs while still providing accountability to the public.

“I think what DPI is doing is just the beginning of what needs to be done,” said Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon.

Davis envisions a system that not only tracks students’ progress through the year but also identifies schools and teachers that are succeeding so that the best practices can be spread quickly around the state.

Researchers and some school districts are already working on the kind of system Davis described, called value-added modeling.

Davis is more ambitious than DPI. He has proposed a bill that would require a value-added system be in place by September 2010. The data needed for such a system already exist, Davis said.

While DPI has declared its intention to overhaul the system, Davis said it’s not clear yet how that system will work.

Davis said the current 10th-grade test should be replaced with an 11th-grade exam, perhaps the ACT college-readiness test, to be taken statewide by all students, something a few other states already do.

“I want a test that actually matters,” Davis said. “I don’t think a lot of students actually take the 10th-grade exam seriously.”

All students in the future will need college-readiness skills, not just those going on to universities, Davis said.

The current testing system costs around $10 million, and DPI says the new system will cost “significantly more.”

Ruth Robinson, who oversees the Janesville School District’s testing, has criticized the current system’s usefulness, not to mention the local cost.

But Robinson said she’s not ready to endorse the new effort until she sees the details.

“We have the devil we know versus the devil we don’t know,” Robinson said. “We can hope for better, but until we know what it is, I don’t know how to react.”

Last updated: 11:51 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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