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Following last year’s massive opt-out movement, the state education department rushed to announce that in 2016, things would be different: Students will be allowed unlimited time to finish, the number of questions has been trimmed, and teacher evaluations will no longer be tied to test scores. And in perhaps the highest-profile shift, last summer the department terminated its contract with Pearson, the much-derided testing conglomerate that drew attention for hiring $12-an-hour test scorers off Craigslist; in its place, the state brought in Questar, a smaller Minnesota–based firm with a much shorter track record.
Whether these changes represent a substantive shift or mere lip service is more contentious. Critics note that the moratorium on using state tests to grade teachers is only for four years, and could be revived in 2020. And even if the tests’ length is reduced, it won’t be by much: A state factsheet indicates the third-grade tests will be trimmed from 103 questions to 90, and eighth-grade tests from 124 questions to 112 — compared to between 60 and 80 questions per test in 2010. And while this year’s tests were compiled by Questar, they still use questions written by Pearson — so students should probably gird themselves for more talking pineapples.
Meanwhile, even bigger changes could be in store: Questar’s state contract urges it to begin instituting all-computerized tests starting next year. That could help resolve some complaints — for one thing, raw scores would be reported faster to teachers. But as far as being able to compare scores and tell who’ll be left back, “that’s still going to take months and months and months,” says Columbia Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas. Computerized tests would also inevitably raise questions about unequal access to both technology and prep time.
What the rollout of computerized tests will look like remains unclear: A state education department spokesperson says only that the goal is for all students to be taking online tests by 2020. Whether that means a slow transition statewide or some districts being thrown into the pool next year, others later, could be key to easing any bumps in the road. In New Jersey, which debuted its all-digital PARCC tests last year, school officials have said that having an initial practice year to do a round of test run-throughs was vital to working out bugs.
“Having the ability to do the field test a year before the actual implementation was so beneficial,” says Teresa Rehman, technology supervisor for the Roxbury, New Jersey, public schools. “That’s how we figured out what’s going to work in our environment and what’s not — without it being high-stakes.”