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By Denise Jewell Gee

News Staff Reporter

No more pencils. No more blue books. No more bubble tests or red pen scores.

Schools, already pressed to prepare students for tougher state exams, are also getting ready for an entirely new way of administering standardized tests.

Bubble sheets and No. 2 pencils will make way for tablets and keyboards. Students will wear headphones and might listen to audio clips. Even the youngest test-takers in third and fourth grades will be required to type instead of write.

It’s coming soon.

Some students across the state will take practice exams this spring designed to try out a new set of standardized tests that will be taken on computers and tablets. And as state education officials determine how soon to switch to the new tests, local school districts are buying new equipment and using more technology in lessons to prepare for digital exams.

But the move to computerized tests has also raised concerns about whether it will put some students at a disadvantage.

“In the previous years, everybody had access to their brains and a pencil,” said Paul Connelly, superintendent of Springville-Griffith Institute. “And now we have people who are rocket scientists with technology and people who have nothing with technology, and to make that dependent upon a child’s progress is extremely unfair in my eyes.”

New York State is part of a partnership of states that is using federal Race to the Top education funds to create a new series of standardized reading, writing and math tests that students will take on computers and tablets. The new tests will be available next school year, and state education officials plan to replace the existing state English and math exams for third through 12th grade with computer-based tests within the next few years.

The idea is to improve the way technology is incorporated into test-taking, giving students practice for a future in which an increasing number of school and work assignments are done online and improving the way schools and states score tests and evaluate the exams.

But the change from paper and pencil to computer-based testing has also raised “serious issues” along with the potential benefits, said Pixita del Prado Hill, associate professor of elementary education and reading at SUNY Buffalo State.

Aside from the cost of updating school technology to administer the tests, districts will need to teach students to type well enough to write essays and to prepare them for doing more school work on the computer.

Just the size of a regular keyboard compared with a child’s hands will be a factor, del Prado Hill said.

“The child may have access for playing and exploring, but how much time is that child really doing what we might consider academic tasks on a computer?” del Prado Hill said. “That’s a different set of a skills. It’s a different motivation.”

Exams given on computers will test not just whether the student knows the answers, but how well versed they are in navigating technology. Part of that is by design. New curriculum standards require third-graders to learn keyboarding skills. By fourth grade, students are expected to know how to type at least one page in a single sitting, and by fifth grade, they are supposed to be able to type two pages.

That could change how students approach test-taking, del Prado Hill said.

“There are differences between how we write and read on a computer and how we write on paper,” del Prado Hill said. “So it’s a different set of skills and a different set of approaches that you take when you’re doing those tasks on those different formats.”

Linda Hoffman, a school board member for Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Board of Cooperative Educational Services, recently told state senators that she has real concerns about the capabilities of districts and students to prepare for the new computer-based tests within the next year.

“Many of our students in rural areas don’t have computers,” Hoffman said during a recent State Senate hearing in Buffalo on education reform. “We have students in Springville who come and sit in the parking lot so that they can use the school’s Wi-Fi. They don’t have it at home, and we talk about going on to the next step of testing and doing it on computer? I have great concerns about that.”

State education officials are also watching whether New York’s schools will be ready for the new tests. Last month, staff from the Department of Education recommended that the state hold off on implementing the new computer-based standardized tests produced by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers until after the 2014-15 school year. The cost of the tests, testing time and “technology readiness” are among the factors that led to the decision.

Despite the uncertainty over when the new state computer-based tests will begin, schools have been told to prepare for them. For many local districts, that will mean buying more computers or tablets and upgrading computer networks to handle many students simultaneously taking tests.

Williamsville and Sweet Home are among the districts that have begun buying large numbers of iPads for classroom lessons. Those tablets, when paired with a keyboard, can also be used for the new computer-based tests. East Aurora will expand its wireless network. In Springville, elementary school students have a set of computers in each classroom that are used for learning typing and other skills.

But local superintendents are also concerned about adding another new testing element and ensuring technology is in place at a time when budgets have been squeezed and curriculum standards have been completely rewritten.

“Things are being thrown at districts so fast during the longest prolonged period of financial retrenchment that we’ve seen in a couple of decades at least,” said Scott Martzloff, superintendent of the Williamsville Central School District. “It’s absolutely challenging for school districts.”

Students in the Buffalo Public Schools are among the first to begin taking a series of computer-based tests. This year, Buffalo students in third grade and up began taking district tests on computers that measure progress in math and English Language Arts. Questions on the tests, typically given in computer labs, are ordered differently for students so they are not answering the same questions as other students on nearby computers.

Students are given scrap paper and calculators in some cases to work out answers.

The tests in Buffalo do not count toward a student’s grade, but instead are used to help teachers track performance. Results are available immediately, and teachers can use the information to tailor student lessons.

“I think the greatest advantage for us right now is the turn-around time with the data,” said Yamilette Williams, chief of curriculum, assessment and instruction for the Buffalo Public Schools. “People are seeing that as a benefit.”

Williams said the district also hopes the familiarity with computer-based testing will help prepare Buffalo students for the future state standardized tests.

Del Prado Hill, who co-directs the Buffalo State Professional Development Schools Consortium, said many teachers have concerns about the speed at which the new tests will come online, especially at a time when curriculum standards are being upgraded and other changes are taking place in schools.

“If you’re integrating technology, you can certainly teach content through technology. In fact, that’s the ideal,” del Prado Hill said. “But the problem is we don’t have classrooms that are necessarily set up for that. There may be a couple of computers in a classroom. So we have to really rethink how we’re using the classroom space and the classroom time, and that takes time to make those kinds of changes.”

email: djgee@buffnews.com