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As exams move online, students spend more time testing

Sarah Garland / The Hechinger Report

Fifth-graders at Townsend Elementary in the Appoquinimink school district in central Delaware wait to begin a state standardized reading test.

In the Appoquinimink school district in central Delaware, students now take three, and sometimes four, versions of the state math and reading tests online each year. In the near future, this may become the norm in schools across the country, as computers allow states to give standardized tests multiple times a year.

Giving students more tests is something the online test developers are encouraging. They say teachers will be able to receive results immediately, which can help them change their teaching methods if students are not mastering the material. But so far in Delaware, one of the early adopters of computer-based testing, the scores are not always helpful, educators say.

The state sends schools two scores showing how students did overall in reading and math. “I wish we got more information than just a number,” said Don Davis, principal of Brick Mill Elementary in the Appoquinimink district.

That’s why Townsend Elementary School, in the next town over, has continued to give its students another set of tests, on top of the state-required standardized tests. Four years ago, the school began using a computer-based test known as the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), administered by the Northwest Evaluation Association. The test, taken three times a year, gives teachers detailed reports on how students are doing in specific areas of reading, like comprehension. The reports can also group students within a class based on their ability in certain skills.

Teachers at Townsend unanimously voted to continue giving students the MAP, because the Delaware state test does not yet provide such fine-grained data. As a result, students at the school now take as many as seven standardized tests a year on the computer.

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It’s a lot, but it’s worth it, teachers and the Townsend principal, Charles Sheppard, say. “We want to know where they are,” he said. Educators at the school are hoping the state test will eventually be as helpful as MAP, so that they can cut down on the number of tests.

But Emily Gale and Emma Patricco, both fourth-graders at Townsend, said they don’t mind the frequent testing. “You can push your score higher,” Emma said.

Indeed, between fall and spring, Delaware’s students have seen big gains in their test scores—partly because they’re learning throughout the year, and partly because they’re becoming more familiar with the test format, educators say.

In particular, “elementary-school students have shown us very large growth in scale scores” over the course of a year under the new system, said Michael Stetter, director of accountability resources for the state education department.

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Experts are not convinced that more testing will improve educational quality, however. “I think it would be wrong to think that [interim testing] is well established, or a sure thing, in terms of its likelihood of being effective,” said Randy Bennett, a researcher at the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, which produces computer-based standardized tests.

Others worry that in addition to the actual days spent testing, the hours students spend preparing for the tests will take even more time away from learning. Derek Neal, an economist at the University of Chicago, predicts that with the advent of online testing, “kids are going to be sitting around at computer terminals practicing their test-taking skills.”

This story, "As exams move online, students spend more time testing,"was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. 

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