Las Vegas Sun

January 27, 2023

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No. 2 pencils to give way to computers in testing school students

The era of coloring in ovals with a No. 2 pencil may soon be over.

More and more tests — such as the military aptitude test and the LSAT law school exam — are going online.

And soon, the standardized math and reading tests for 19 million students in 25 states, including Nevada, will be administered on a tablet or personal computer.

This new computerized assessment will represent one of the largest technological shifts in K-12 education, one that will likely herald the end of the Scantron.

But with any technological disruption, there are questions aplenty.

Are there enough classroom computers for students to take this exam? How do educators safeguard online tests from cheating? What kind of preparation do students and staff need for a digital assessment? Is there enough funding for this major transition?

"This is a very different type of test," said Leslie Arnold, the Clark County School District's director of research, data and assessment. Preparing for the new test "is a big task for a district our size."


This new computerized test comes on the heels of another significant development in public education: a national learning standard that emphasizes deeper analytical and critical thinking.

Nevada is one of 45 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which require a more challenging curriculum as well as a new set of standardized tests by the 2014-15 school year.

Proponents argue the more rigorous academic standards will better prepare students for college. The standardized national curriculum also helps ensure a quality education for students moving across state lines, which benefits Las Vegas’ highly transient population.

The Silver State's 17 school districts have been training its teachers on the new Common Core curriculum since last school year. Next month, districts will begin several pilot programs for the new Common Core tests.

Nearly 70 Clark County elementary and middle schools are participating in the first pilot, scheduled from January to May and run by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The consortium is a group of 25 states, including Nevada, developing a computerized Common Core test.

The new tests are considered to be groundbreaking in that they are "computer adaptive." Unlike a traditional paper-and-pencil test, an online test can automatically change its questions to better measure what a student knows.

The more questions a student answers correctly, the harder the questions get. The more questions a student answers incorrectly, the easier the questions get.

"We haven't tested students like this before," Arnold said. "These (tests) are incredibly different from what our students are used to."

The Common Core assessment also delivers different results because it can ask students questions above and below their grade level.

A traditional test can only determine whether a fourth-grader is reading at fourth-grade level. However, a "computer-adaptive" test can tell educators much more, such as whether that same fourth-grader is reading at a second-grade level or a sixth-grade level.

"You're getting better information and a more detailed picture of the student," Arnold said. "You can actually see how far a student has progressed."

And because these are computerized assessments, educators are expecting to receive the test results sooner so teachers can adjust their curricula accordingly.

"We'll have the results so much quicker so we can inform our instruction," said Jhone Ebert, the district's chief technology officer. "Right now, it takes months for us to get those results. Parents need to know how their students are doing in a timely matter so they can assist their child."


The School District has been preparing for computerized assessments since Nevada adopted the Common Core standards in 2010.

Using funds from the 1998 school bond program, the School District has equipped nearly all of its 357 schools with wireless Internet access. This would help schools deliver online tests through laptops and iPads.

However, it's too early to tell how much bandwidth, server space and new computers are needed to handle thousands of online test-takers at once.

"With 250,000 students hitting the enter button, what is that going to look like?" Arnold asked. "We're interested in seeing how the pilot goes and seeing what supports we need."

For the nation's fifth-largest school district, Clark County will likely need a lot of support to undertake the Common Core curriculum and tests.

Although the Nevada Education Department will pay for the new tests — expected to cost about $20 per student — preparing for them has been left largely to school districts.

"What kind of support we have (from the state) is still a little unclear," Arnold said.

This unfunded mandate may strain cash-strapped districts suffering from budget cuts in the wake of the recession.

On top of paying for additional teacher trainings, districts across the country are bracing for increased spending on new technology to meet the demands of the new computerized tests.

Clark County schools have a five-year renewal cycle for their 110,000 computers, tablets and laptops. However, with no new capital program on the horizon, the School District plans to suspend the annual replacement of its broken and worn-out computers.

Although that would save the district $10 million annually, it could potentially lead to a shortage of computers, which could jeopardize delivering the new tests.

"There are not enough computers so that every single student could be online and be assessed at the same time," Ebert said.

During testing weeks, schools may have to scale back or reschedule their computer-heavy classes such as computer-assisted design, business and graphic design.

"This test is adding another requirement to what we already do," Ebert said. "If we need to take those (computer labs) offline, students aren't learning their curriculum."


There are other concerns with online testing, which include ensuring that web-savvy students can't cheat and providing adequate accommodations for English Language Learner and special education students.

Common Core tests will lock the Web browser so students are unable to access programs and websites other than the test. Because these new exams will be "computer adaptive," it will be impossible for a student to cheat off another, as the tests are tailored to each individual.

The School District is working with its departments to establish new procedures to accommodate different students, Arnold said. These accommodations — like their paper-and-pencil counterparts — would most likely include additional testing time.

Students who are computer illiterate may have an especially difficult time adjusting to the Common Core tests. Students who are able to type faster and understand how computerized tests operate may have an advantage over their less tech-savvy peers.

That's why district officials are urging all students to become adept at typing and navigating a computer. That could be difficult in a district with a high population of low-income students who may not have computer access at home.

"Students will need to practice on a computer as much as they can," Ebert said. "When this is integrated into the curriculum, students should not have a hard time with that. Students are already very engaged with the technology."

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