Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Circling in Your MEAP answers could be history with computer test

Michigan takes big step forward in online testing of students

November 26, 2012  |  
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They ditched their No. 2 pencils in favor of a mouse and a keyboard to take the MEAP social studies exam -- and in the process became part of a crucial project that will give state officials a glimpse into the future of online testing in Michigan.
The pilot social studies exam -- given to about 35,000 students in nearly 100 school districts statewide this fall -- marked the first time any portion of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) exam has been given online.
It also marks a dramatic shift occurring in education: The traditional paper-and-pencil, fill-in-the-blank exams could become as much of a relic as learning cursive and using blackboards. But it's a shift that will come with challenges as some schools struggle to implement the proper technology necessary to test all students online.
The push is toward an online testing process that provides quicker results, requires less paperwork and takes advantage of the kind of technology that captures the attention of today's young people.
"I thought it was a really easy test," said Hassan Hammoud, 10, a sixth-grader at Unis Middle School in Dearborn.
Classmate Yasmine Slimani agreed.
"The online test really made it much simpler than doing it on paper," the 11-year-old sixth-grader said. "You just pretty much pressed a button."
The Michigan Department of Education will make a gigantic leap into online assessment in 2015, when an online test called the Smarter Balanced Assessment replaces the MEAP and Michigan Merit Exams (MME) in English language arts and math. Michigan is part of a consortium of 26 states that will give the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which is based on a set of rigorous, common national standards meant to gauge college and career readiness and for the first time will allow Michigan to compare its students' performance to those in other states.
When the Smarter Balanced Assessment debuts, it will be combined with the MEAP and MME tests in other subjects -- all of which will be online.
"We wanted to see how schools were prepared to do this and how it would actually work in the schools before we got the whole state involved in every content and every grade level," said Jim Griffiths, manager for assessment administration and reporting at MDE.
That's why educators such as Heyam Alcodray, principal at Unis and McCullough Elementary -- which share a building -- volunteered for the pilot.
"We know where testing is going in the future. We thought we might as well get on board now and not wait," Alcodray said.
There's no formal data yet on the social studies pilot, but state officials said they're encouraged by what they've heard informally from local educators.
"It's gone incredibly smoothly. I have to say I am surprised," said Kate Cermak, administration and reporting analyst at the MDE. "The schools are reporting that their students seem to be more engaged and interested in taking the online assessment."

Technology obstacles

The pilot exam began in October and ran through early November, with the state having to provide extra time for the schools to administer the online exam to accommodate some schools' technological limitations. Technology issues -- having enough computers to get all students tested within the time allowed and having the proper wireless access -- are likely to be major issues for some schools as online testing is broadened. The state is currently surveying schools to get a handle on their readiness.
For Jason Clinkscale, principal at Berkshire Middle School in Beverly Hills, which participated in the pilot, it will be more of a logistical issue. His school has two computer labs with 32 computers each and a third lab with 17 computers and a number of laptops. The labs are already in heavy use, he said. Online testing will create a bigger logjam.
Clinkscale and Alcodray said the pilot was successful at their schools. But they said it will require a heavy dose of planning to get kids in and out of the labs to take online exams in all subjects and grade levels and still be able to use the labs for research and instruction.
Vincent Dean, director of the MDE's office of standards and assessment, said the state is exploring how it might be able to make grants available for schools that need technology upgrades.
For those schools that aren't ready, a paper-and-pencil version of the Smarter Balanced exam will be available for the first three years, he said.

Student advantages

During the pilot, it didn't take long for students to come across a key advantage of the online test. As they were answering questions, they could flag answers they weren't completely sure about and the computer would remind them when they were done. The same would happen if they skipped a question.
With a paper-and-pencil test, students would have to rely on their memory to go back and revisit questions they skipped or wanted to review, said Hassan.
"I used it about two or three times, maybe a little more," he said.
"Those kinds of tools might help us get a better indication of student ability levels," Clinkscale said.
Hassan and Yasmine also liked that they didn't have to worry about making sure they filled in bubbles properly.
"All you have to worry about is the actual question and selecting the right answer," Yasmine said. "It's really simple and interactive."
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651 or lhiggins@freepress.com