In NY, Computers Replace Pencil and Paper on State Exams

Technology is catching up with schools as traditional methods of giving exams are set to be overhauled. Changes may come as soon as this spring in Buffalo schools, replacing older methods with reforms which include typing and listening to audio clips, among others. Giving the exams through computers is also beneficial as it measures how well a student is conversant with technology. However, this has not come without some criticism.

This spring, students will take practice exams designed to try out a new set of standardized tests that will be taken on computers and tablets. Local school districts are buying new equipment and using more technology in lessons to prepare for digital exams  as state education officials determine how soon to switch to the new tests. However some concerns have been raised as to whether the computerized tests will disadvantage some students.

“In the previous years, everybody had access to their brains and a pencil,” said Paul Connelly, superintendent of Springville-Griffith Institute. “And now we have people who are rocket scientists with technology and people who have nothing with technology, and to make that dependent upon a child’s progress is extremely unfair in my eyes.”

According to Denise Jewell Gee, New York State is part of a partnership of states that are using federal Race to the Top education funds to create a new series of standardized reading, writing and math tests that students will take on computers and tablets. The new tests will be available next school year, and state education officials plan to replace the existing state English and math exams for third through 12th grade with computer-based tests within the next few years. The idea is to improve the way technology is incorporated into test-taking, giving students practice for a future in which an increasing number of school and work assignments are done online and improving the way schools and states score tests and evaluate the exams.

Pixita del Prado Hill, associate professor of elementary education and reading at SUNY Buffalo said that the change from paper and pencil to computer-based testing has also raised “serious issues” along with the potential benefits. Districts will need to teach students to type well enough to write essays and to prepare them for doing more school work on the computer aside from the cost of updating school technology to administer the tests. Pixita believes that just the size of a regular keyboard compared with a child’s hands will be a factor.

“The child may have access for playing and exploring, but how much time is that child really doing what we might consider academic tasks on a computer?” Pixita posed. “That’s a different set of skills. It’s a different motivation.”

Exams given on computer will test whether the student knows the answers as well as how well-versed they are in navigating technology. The new curriculum standards require third-graders to learn keyboarding skills. By fourth grade, students are expected to know how to type at least one page in a single sitting, and by fifth grade, they are supposed to be able to type two pages. According to Pixita, this could change how students approach test-taking.

“There are differences between how we write and read on a computer and how we write on paper,” Pixita said. “So it’s a different set of skills and a different set of approaches that you take when you’re doing those tasks on those different formats.”

A school board member for Erie Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Linda Hoffman, recently told state senators that she has real concerns about the capabilities of districts and students to prepare for the new computer-based tests within the next year.

“Many of our students in rural areas don’t have computers,” Linda said during a recent State Senate hearing in Buffalo on education reform. “We have students in Springville who come and sit in the parking lot so that they can use the school’s Wi-Fi. They don’t have it at home, and we talk about going on to the next step of testing and doing it on computer? I have great concerns about that.”