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Computers, opt-outs and test length in question as math tests kick off

Computers, opt-outs and test length in question as math tests kick off

Fewer students will take math tests on computers
Computers, opt-outs and test length in question as math tests kick off
Photographer: Shutterstock

Opt-out rates for the state's English Language Arts tests continued to ease when comparing last month's test to last year's. Meanwhile, computer problems overshadowed a litany of other long-simmering concerns about the tests.

Teachers also lobbed complaints at state officials over the length of the tests which, while scheduled over fewer days than previous years, took some students longer than expected to complete.

During April’s ELA test, opt-out rates dropped compared to last year in all of more than 15 districts that reported test participation numbers to the Daily Gazette during the first week of testing. In some of those districts, 20 percent or more of students are still refusing to participate on the tests.

In Canajoharie schools, 38 percent of students didn’t participate on the tests, down from 40 percent last year. In Duanesburg, though, the opt-out rate dropped from 11 percent to 5 percent; in Galway, it fell from 27 percent to 9 percent.

Students return to testing Tuesday as they set out on two days of math tests – the test that usually drives more test refusals than the ELA version.

The first round of tests this year, however, focused attention on a different aspect of testing and one state officials hope becomes a growing part of the annual spring rite: computers.

In the state’s first year of ramping up computer-based testing across the state, technical problems caused long delays and problems submitting answers. In some schools, students waited for over an hour before logging in to take the tests. In other schools, administrators scrapped computer testing that day all together and resumed testing the next day.

“In my mind, this is no longer a standardized testing situation,” Scotia-Glenville Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Karen Swain said after the first day of computer testing.

The technical problems were traced to Questar Assessment, the testing vendor hired by the state to develop and administer the tests. Questar said the testing problem was caused by an issue with their “hosting vendor” but did not respond to questions about what specifically had happened.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia later called the computer problems “unacceptable” and said state officials would review its contract with Questar.

Even before the computer problems surfaced last month, fewer students were slated to take the math tests on computers. Educators have said the shift to computer testing may be a bigger lift for math tests.

In six Capital Region counties – Schenectady, Saratoga, Albany, Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie – far fewer schools plan to test students on computers for the math exams than they did for the ELA tests, according to data the state Education Department provided prior to the ELA testing.

More than 50 schools in the region tested at least some students on computers for the ELA tests, while fewer than 30 schools are planning to use computers for the math tests.

Aside from the myriad computer problems that caused testing headaches across the state, teachers around the state also raised concerns last month about how long it took students to complete the tests, which are no longer timed.

While this is the first year the test is given over two days each for math and ELA – down from three days for each test – some teachers said it appeared the test was crammed into fewer days without cutting a full day’s worth of work from the tests.

“Teachers do feel like they took a three-day test and maybe cut a piece of that out but didn’t get it down to a two-day test,” said Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady teachers union, echoing reports from around the state.

State officials have said that this year’s tests contain “substantially fewer” questions that in recent years, including three fewer reading passages and fewer written-response prompts.

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