Common Core Assessment: Is computer-based testing superior to paper and pencil tests?

Jessica Dang and Brooke Shimasaki

With society progressing into a technology-based era, education is making a breakthrough reform by shifting to Common Core where parents, educators, lawmakers and state officials have committed billions of dollars to implementing computer-based assessments.

Computer-based and paper-based testing are only different in personal preference and familiarity with the format of the test and keyboarding. Computer-based tests require all students to develop digital literacy in order to achieve better scores. Increased keyboarding instruction at a younger age will help eliminate socioeconomic and racial disadvantages that many fear will lead to a “digital divide” among students.

Opponents of the computerized version of tests argue that the assessment unfairly hinders low income students who lack access to computers at home from achieving higher results compared to wealthier students who have easier access to computers.

According to David Bolt and Ray Crawford, authors of “Digital Divide,” “over 80 percent of families with incomes of $100,000 or more have computers at home, [and] only about 25 percent of households with annual incomes under $30,000 have home access to computers.”

Granted, computer familiarity does impact the results of writing tests and other areas of testing because of lack of prior computer experience. A 2014 study that included 22 states showed that teachers ranging from public schools to middle-/ high-income schools had a unanimous perception that their students struggled with online testing even with computer familiarity.

However, educators who have exposed keyboarding instruction to elementary students have responded with more positive feedback compared to those who taught keyboarding instruction in middle school.

According to a survey in Idaho, students in grades 3-5 found computer-based testing to be fairly simple and found it easy to use computers to type in their responses. Many high school students and previous generations have grown accustomed to the traditional pencil-and-paper testing after years of taking them and are strongly opposed to computerized standardized tests.

Computer-based tests have built-in accommodations that can eliminate traditional barriers and increase the participation of students with disabilities such as screen readers, Braille displays, screen magnification and audio.

Although typing in answers and calculating problems on keyboards may be tedious, shifting to teaching keyboarding techniques will surely dissolve any student’s premature notions that solving questions on keyboards is “hard.”
Common Core’s computer adaptive assessment is noticeably shorter because fewer questions are now required to determine each student’s achievement level. Based on a student’s response to a question, the test “learns” more about the user to vary the difficulty of the test accordingly. Students who answer a question correctly will then progress to more challenging response questions, while incorrect answers generate easier questions.

Parents and teachers who favor the traditional forms of testing claim that by taking away the long-established pencil and paper, students’ motor skills will be negatively impacted and active-reading and marking the text skills that teachers have tried to embed into students will be counteracted. Despite students not being able to mark the text online during tests, many students lack the initiative to make notes in the margins and mindlessly underline or highlight random quotations on regular tests.

Computer-based testing allows students to conveniently compose written responses in essay format by offering the option of editing responses for grammatical errors, sentence structure and spelling and rearranging blocks of text.
Test scorers will be able to read and grade these responses faster rather than struggling to decipher smudged, crossed-out or cursive handwriting. Students find cursive writing to be a tedious process, and with computer-based tests, they will be able to concentrate more on the content of their responses than manually handwriting compositions and essays. Online scoring will result in faster, accurate feedback as opposed to bubble-tests which can incorrectly mark a student down for faded marks, mistakes in bubbling an answer or missing a question.

According to the California Department of Education, the state spent approximately $1.25 billion implementing Common Core by providing money for instructional materials and technology and programs for teacher training. Investments have been made to develop computer-based tests and enact the Common Core program; therefore, students and educators should grow familiar with the format rather than fight against it.

It is the 21st century and with the average American family’s life revolving around technology, it is time to accept that bubbling in the correct response is now the equivalent of the horse and buggy.

Put away the pencil and paper, and take out the keyboard and mouse. Throughout the year, both the English and math departments have emphasizes the use of active reading in order to ready students for Common Core standardized tests. Though Common Core strives to give all students equal opportunity for success, the test’s success is questionable in California due to the diversity of the state.

Common Core curriculum, which starts in kindergarten and continues all the way to 12th grade, has good intentions as it teaches students to understand the information’s applications to real world settings rather than simply memorizing equations and being able to identify grammatical errors. High school students, who have been taking multiple choice standardized tests all their academic careers, are now expected to “explain why” and “support their answer by citing the provided sources.”

Supporters of Common Core argue that the new computerized testing platform prepares students for the inevitable movement toward technology-based education. Concern, however, arises about how well the test will accommodate California’s ethnically and socioeconomically diverse population.

Many students are first or second generation Americans so English may not be spoken primarily in the household. According to a survey taken by the California Department of Education during the 2013-2014 school year, 1.41 million, or 22.4 percent, of students enrolled in public education are “English Learners.” The Common Core test is supposed to be standardized so that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed. But how are the English Learners of the state supposed to answer the open ended test questions; some students have trouble speaking English, let alone translating their thoughts into English and then typing them into free response boxes. Those who do not speak English at home, do not possess strong writing skills, or do not have an extensive academic vocabulary are disadvantaged as they struggle to put their thoughts into words.

California students also vary in socioeconomic situations. While some students’ main concern is when they will be getting the next iPhone, others must worry about when they will be getting their next meal. Higher income students have greater access to computers and technology, giving them an advantage over lower income students when it comes to testing on a computer.

The movement from traditional paper-pencil testing to complete computerization not only disadvantages lower income students, but California’s pupils as a whole. Students must learn computer keystrokes in order to effectively interact with the text. In class, students practice annotating with pens and highlighters, but they will be unable to use these writing utensils on the actual test without having to perform multiple keystrokes first.

Additionally, a number of Bear Creek students voiced complaints after this year’s exams about getting used to typing on a keyboard rather than punching in numbers on a handheld calculator. The math portion of the test proves difficult to adjust to. Instead of being able to circle important numbers and write directly on the diagrams provided, students must transfer the information from the screen to a piece of paper, then maneuver the laptop mouse in order to input numbers on the calculator.

“Having to take the math test on a computer made it more difficult,” junior Daniel Barajas said. “There was no number pad, just numbers in a straight line on the top row, and that made it hard to maneuver through the test.”

The true result of Common Core’s effectiveness will not be evident until more than a decade from now, when a group of students has finally been educated with Common Core Standards all the way from kindergarten to eleventh grade, the final year of assessment. But due to the ever-changing nature of education and constant adoption of new curriculum, it is not definite that Common Core will withstand the test of time — or in education time, 12 years.

Until then, California can only predict the future of this new curriculum by looking to states like New York, Ohio, and Missouri, where Common Core has been implemented since 2010.

Seeing other states’ reactions to CC Standards is anything but promising, though. At the moment, anti-standardized test New Yorkers have rapidly pulled their children from taking part in the Common Core tests. By April 17, a total of 155,237 students had already been opted out of taking the language arts portion of the test, worrying New York school districts about the possible loss of federal funding and other negative backlash due to parents and students’ uncooperative efforts.

While California lawmakers seem to believe in the new curriculum enough to invest $1.25 billion, the validity of the computerized tests are still in question. Is Common Core a test of knowledge or simply an evaluation of how well one can use a computer? To find the answer, check the two-page long glossary of SBAC computer keystrokes.