Online testing is coming — with glitches

Online testing promises to help teachers hone instruction by providing instant feedback on what students are learning and what they’re missing, notes the Hechinger Report. Online tests also should make it easier to spot patterns that suggest cheating. With backing from the Obama administration and new tests under development, a majority of students could be taking standardized math and English tests online in three years.

Delaware already has moved all state testing online.

 On a recent afternoon at Townsend Elementary School here, a little boy squinted at a computer screen and gripped his mouse. He was stuck. Half of the screen contained an article about rainforests. The other half was filled with questions, some multiple-choice, some not.

One question asked the boy to pick two animals that belonged in the rainforest from a list of pictures and written descriptions. Then he was supposed to drag the animals across the screen onto the rainforest background. Next, he had to move two correct descriptions of rainforest characteristics into boxes.

Test developers hope the next generation of online tests will be more challenging and stimulating.

In these new exams, a student might be asked to use a mouse to move the sides of a shape on screen into an isosceles triangle, highlight the main idea of a passage, or write an essay about two articles supplemented by their own online research.

But Delaware’s current test, which students take three or four times a year, doesn’t break down students’ scores on specific skills. Townsend Elementary also is testing students three times a year on a more sophisticated test that gives teachers feedback on where students are struggling. That means students spend more time taking tests.

Some early adopters are struggling with technical problems.

Wyoming abandoned online testing, after adopting it in 2010, and is back to pencil and paper. The technical problems were overwhelming. Every school was routed through a single, private network, which “collapsed under the weight of more than 80,000 public school students.” In addition, some schools didn’t have enough working computers.

On the other hand, Virginia, which invested $650 million in new technology, has rolled out online testing without major problems.

For-profits under fire

On Community College Spotlight:  Sen. Tom Harkin hits for-profit education with GAO report on fraud and abuse.

Also, Wyoming’s community colleges and state university are trying to set a common standard to define when students are ready for college-level work.

$16K per student, no progress

When Wyoming decided to spend its natural gas bonanza on public schools in 2006, State Superintendent Jim McBride predicted:

“We probably will have the nation’s No. 1 graduation rate, maybe college attendance rate. We probably will have the highest NAEP scores.”

Spending soared to $16,000 per student with no rise in NAEP scores, writes Matthew Ladner on Jay Greene’s blog. Meanwhile, scores for Florida’s Hispanic students rose to  the Wyoming average.

New Jersey also spends $16,000 a year per student, writes Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute in the New York Post. As enrollment rose by 3 percent since 2001, staff hiring rose by 14 percent, about one new teacher for every two new students.  Increases in wages, health benefits and pension costs have outpaced inflation.

There’s been little educational payoff. Performance on national education-assessment tests has been a mixed bag. On crucial eighth-grade reading tests, for instance, the percentage of Jersey students scoring at or above proficient in 2009 was just 42 percent, up slightly from 38 percent in 2005.

Gov. Chris Christie wants to cut state aid to local schools to balance the budget without more tax hikes. School boards and unions say that will trigger drastic cuts. Christie says schools won’t have to make cuts if unions agree to a “one-year wage freeze and a moderate contribution toward health costs,” Malanga writes.

A teachers’ union local included a joke prayer calling for Christie’s death in its newsletter.  The state-level union apologized.

Wacky Wednesday: Not so crazy

“Wacky Wednesday” is just another school day in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming.  Elementary school used to let out at noon on Wednesday to give teachers time to discuss new teaching strategies and plan lessons. Children played at school or went home.

In response to parents’ complaints, the Laramie County School District 2 board  voted for a conventional schedule.

In other countries, teachers have much more time to collaborate, reports the National Staff Development Council. Only 20 percent of U.S. teachers’ time is spent on working with colleagues and improving their teaching skills.

In most European and Asian countries, meanwhile, teacher training is commonly part of the regular school week. Teachers in those countries typically spend less than half of their working time teaching, according to the council’s report. Yet the students in many of those countries, who spend less time in class than American students, outscore their American counterparts in math and science, the report said.

Laramie County educators credit the weekly in-school training led by a master teacher with higher reading and math scores in the district.

Giving teachers time for training and collaboration isn’t all that wacky. Wednesday was a short day — but not as short as in Pine Bluffs — when my daughter was in Palo Alto schools.  A volunteer-lead enrichment program — sports, music, art, computer time — would have been helpful for working parents, but we coped without it.