Local students find online tests 'not as intimidating'

Cayucos Elementary School sixth-graders, from left, Grace Carney, 12; Ava Jacobsen, 12; and Alyssa Myers, 11, work on a computer-administered practice test.

Tribune photo by David Middlecamp
Cayucos Elementary School sixth-graders, from left, Grace Carney, 12; Ava Jacobsen, 12; and Alyssa Myers, 11, work on a computer-administered practice test. Tribune photo by David Middlecamp

Twelve-year-old Grace Carney peered at a practice test question on the laptop in front of her and explained why she preferred the new computer-based exams over the former paper tests.

“I get nervous during tests when I see the paper in front of me,” Grace, a sixth-grade student at Cayucos Elementary School, said Thursday. “The computer’s not as intimidating.”

Unlike past years, when students faced multiple-choice tests and filled in answers with a No. 2 pencil, Grace and her classmates each sat in front of a laptop and used a mouse to maneuver around the screen.

The bubble sheets have been replaced as students in San Luis Obispo County — and about 2.5 million students across California — transitioned this year to online assessments aligned to new learning standards in math and English.

“These changes are huge,” Julian Crocker, the county’s superintendent of schools, said in a recent interview. “(It is) a dramatic change in what we teach and how we test it.”

Some school district officials around the county said the testing was going smoothly overall, though a few glitches were reported. Schools were able to test over a two-month period this year, starting at the end of March and wrapping up in early June.

“It’s been a heck of a lot of work,” said Curt Dubost, superintendent of and a principal in the San Miguel Joint Union School District.

He said students’ reactions to the test have been very positive.

“They think it’s way cooler to take the test online rather than the old bubble-in multiple choice,” he said.

In the next school year, the online tests will replace the California Standards Tests and other assessments that have made up the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program for the past 15 years, according to the California Department of Education.

The new Smarter Balanced assessments are tied to the federal Common Core standards in English-language arts and math that all but a handful of states have adopted. California adopted them in 2010.

This year’s test won’t count, however. The purpose is to “test the test” to evaluate the quality of the test questions and determine whether school districts have adequate technology to support the online assessments.

Local school districts have collectively received millions of dollars in one-time state funds to put the new Common Core standards into place.

The money can be used for teacher training, instructional materials and technology, including computers and infrastructure to support the new tests. 

The San Luis Coastal Unified District, for example, is getting nearly $1.5 million. A chunk of the money was used to purchase devices and equipment, including headphones and keyboards, for the online testing, said Ryan Pinkerton, assistant superintendent of business services.

The new test questions are designed to emphasize critical thinking, reasoning, problem solving and deeper knowledge of subjects, according to state education officials.

“It’s a little more difficult than the paper test,” Cayucos Elementary sixth-grader Elijah Quimby, 11, said. “But it was kind of cool because we didn’t have to go through all the instructions like with the paper test. It was a lot quicker.”

A few of Elijah’s classmates reported that the wording of a few questions confused them or that they ran into small issues. For example, one student was asked to search for a misspelled word, but all of the words were correct.

A few other school officials in the county reported that some students, including some in third grade — the youngest grade tested — ran into difficulties because they don’t have a lot of experience with computers.

“It is a struggle for many of the third-grade students to keep up with the amount of typing needed,” Kimberly McGrath, director of Secondary Learning, Achievement and Innovation for San Luis Coastal, wrote in an email.

For others, instructions such as “highlight text” or “drag and drop” were challenging, said Jeff Martin, principal of Sinsheimer Elementary in San Luis Obispo. Students there took the test in the school’s computer lab.

“It’s the responsibility of the school now to … make sure they have those skills so they have a fair chance to be able to demonstrate what they know,” he said.

Andy Stenson, principal at Mesa Middle School on the Nipomo Mesa, said the new test was refreshing, but he also foresees difficulties with students having to stay engaged and focused on one task for as long as two hours (the test is untimed).

Stenson said that after seeing the amount of typing required, he’s thinking of offering a keyboarding elective course next school year.

“This test has a lot more depth,” he said, “and because of that, I think we’re going to have to recondition kids to be able to focus on a cognitive task for two hours.”