State Board gets upbeat report on state’s first online tests

Colorado’s launch of online tests this spring was successful, if sometimes nerve-wracking, officials told the State Board of Education Wednesday.

“We can now say that our elementary and middle schools can give online assessments,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment for the Department of Education.

Science and social studies tests were given in all elementary and middle schools this spring, and portions of the coming PARCC tests in language arts and math were given in selected schools.

The major issue raised by the PARCC testing is whether the state wants to consider giving new math tests on paper next year, not online, Zurkowksi said.

“There were some bumps and there were some bruises,” Zurkowski said, but in the end “about 99 percent of our kiddos” were able to take science and social studies tests online. Only about 1,500 students had to take paper tests for personal accommodation reasons, not because of computer or other technical problems.

“I am nothing but humbled at what districts did to pull this off,” she said.

The report especially pleased two board members.

“We’re doing it right,” said Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver. “We’re approaching it just the way we should be approaching it. … We’re at the front end.”

“I’m actually not surprised,” said Angelika Schroeder of Boulder. “I think fear was a huge factor” before new tests launched, she said. “I know there are some parents and citizens who aren’t comfortable, but our kids sure are.”

Science tests, previously given on paper, were administered online to fifth and eighth graders earlier this spring. Brand-new online social studies tests were given to fourth and seventh graders. Both tests will be given to 12th graders next fall, the first time that high school seniors will have to take statewide achievement tests. Results from the first set of these tests will be collected and reported but won’t count on district and school accountability ratings.

Districts had a 15-day window in which to give science and social studies tests, with the bulk of the tests administered within two weeks. On the second day of testing, more than 90,000 students were online, Zurkowski said.

She said a variety of technical problems – computer slowdowns, software updates that threatened compatibility with tests and even an outage by Internet provider CenturyLink – but none presented major challenges.

Some districts had been concerned about connection speeds, but “in the end bandwidth was not a huge issue,” Zurkowski said. “We did not need to provide paper [tests] to anybody because of bandwidth issues.”

She said the new tests did highlight a human problem – “a great deal” of variation in technical knowledge and comfort among adult school staff.

“We’re really going to have to deal with the adult comfort level,” Zurkowski said. “From the kid perspective, they definitely seemed to appreciate this” new testing system.

Discussing the PARCC field tests, she said, “The initial feedback that we have gotten from kids is that they are finding the math assessment more difficult than the English language arts assessment.”

Zurkowski said that may not be because the math tests are harder but because students are more likely to use pencils and paper during math lessons, while reading and writing on computers or tablets is more common in language arts classes. So students may not have been used to answering math questions on computers.

Because of that, she said, the state may want to consider administering 2015 PARCC math tests on paper.

The first set of PARCC field tests were given from late March to April 11, and a second set is being administered now. About 13,000 students took the first tests. Students didn’t take both tests, just language arts or math. And in most cases a student participated in one group of tests, not both.

The board also was briefed Wednesday on the results of surveys about the state’s testing system. Read that story here.