The standardized testing field and the schools who use their products haven't missed out on advances in technology. In the next two years, the majority of states will be adopting a new suite of standardized tests administered with the aid of a computer. In an attempt to provide a preview of what is on the horizon, two groups working in competition to design the exams have now posted several questions in mathematics and language arts on their websites as a sneak peek.
Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium's English exam samples will be familiar to anyone who has had to answer reading comprehension questions based on a short passage. However, contrary to the commonly used multiple-choice answers, the students must answer the question in a variety of different ways. The first question asks students to write a short paragraph explaining their conclusions and to support them with references to the passage. The second, which makes use of a mouse, asks students to highlight sentences that help that determine the meaning of a particular word from context.
The most unusual of Smarter Balance mathematics questions asks students to use their mouse to drag weights into three separate bags to determine their capacity. Another provides an animated video of a 50m swim race, and then asks students to manipulate the times to test their facility with rounding numbers.
Smarter Balanced officials gave an example of a multi-part question in which high school students are asked to imagine they are the chief of staff for a congresswoman. Before they start working on the test, their teacher is supposed to lead a classroom activity about nuclear power. The students are then asked to come up with a list of pros and cons about nuclear power. Finally, they must write up a presentation for the congresswoman to give at a press conference later that day.
Barbara Kapinus, who is the director of English language arts and literacy for Smarter Balance, said that the aim was to allow students to use their own experiences and combine them with what they learned in school in order to figure out each question. She said that the priority was to communicate the idea that the tests represented "the real world."
The questions provided by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers also fully take advantage of the computer by having students watch animations and manipulate virtual objects like the ruler. In a 6th-grade math exam, a question titled Slider Ruler allows students to move the slider along two rules – centimeters and inches – simultaneously and then asks several questions testing their understanding of the relationship between the two units of measurement.
A question on the life-cycle of a butterfly, a part of the end-of-year assessment examination for 3rd graders, asks that the kids arrange the words describing the stages of the process from egg to adult in the correct order.
Many questions will continue to be multiple-choice, however. States have favored multiple-choice tests because they are cheaper to design and score, and since answer sheets can be run through a computer. Questions like the one about nuclear power are more expensive, because they will likely require a trained evaluator to score them.