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State's new computerized exam tryout plagued by glitches

EducationSchoolsElementary SchoolsHigh SchoolsMiddle SchoolsStudentsExams and Standardized Tests
Student test-takers experienced slow connections, mysterious log-offs and loss of work
Students complained the tests were harder in both content and having to use computers
Teachers expressed relief that this year's state test results won't be used to evaluate anyone

New state standardized exams, given for the first time on computers this spring, really have been a test. But not always a test of math and English.

Students had trouble logging on; then many were logged off, sometimes for inactivity while they read lengthy passages. Some devices froze or didn't save answers. Slow connections caused students to wait impatiently. There was a mysterious power failure on testing day at one campus.

Teachers figured out tricks that solved problems on some computers but didn't work on others. Some devices didn't function at all.

Educators overwhelmingly expressed relief that this year's results will not be used to evaluate students, teachers or schools in California. This was considered a year to test the test — allowing school districts to work out problems and get used to the new exams, which will be covered by $51 million set aside in the state budget.

"I think the results would be horrible if the tests had been counted this year," said Elizabeth Topkis, the testing coordinator at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies.

The California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress replaces multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble exams, taken with pencil and paper. For years, those test scores defined the progress of schools and districts, determining awards and sanctions, even real estate prices. In some places, including Los Angeles, the scores were linked to teacher evaluations.

L.A. Unified, the state's largest school system, provided campuses with new iPads to complement laptop and desktop computers used for the exams. The iPad distribution was part of a troubled, $1-billion effort to equip all students with computers — both for testing and for daily instruction.

The new test is a tsunami of firsts. Some questions have more than one correct answer; many are open-ended. Others include listening to audio. To answer some questions, students must create a graph or a geometric shape. They must type some responses, such as finishing a passage as the author would have. A "performance task" follows a 30-minute scripted lesson from the teacher and culminates in an essay.

The questions themselves are based on new state learning standards, called the Common Core, adopted by 44 states, which are supposed to focus on deeper learning skills rather than rote memorization.

"We're trying to do things we've never done before, and all those things converged at once," said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy.

As of last week, more than 2.7 million California students had completed the tests; a total of 3.2 million are scheduled to take the new exam before June 6.

Students complained that the tests were harder — both in terms of content and in using computers.

Next year's version is supposed to be even lengthier.

"It was way long," said Alondra Ibarra, a seventh-grader at Bancroft Middle School in Hollywood. "My head started hurting from reading so much."

Some wanted to return to pencil and paper. But others, including Alondra, found the tests more engaging, similar to solving interesting puzzles.

"It gives my brain a new way to think about testing, several ways to solve a problem," she said. "This will help us in the future."

Ninth-grader Allison Venz at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies was among many experiencing technical difficulties.

"Every day, my computer kept shutting down and I had to log back in," she said. "I started 15 minutes later than everyone else. It was so annoying.

"And also I was trying to type in something for an answer in math and it would glitch out and put the whole thing in parentheses, and it took five minutes to get the right thing in parentheses," she said.

Even when things worked, "There are tools on the test that students don't know how to use," said her father, Steve Venz, principal at Quincy Jones Elementary, south of downtown.

He said most of his students have limited computer access at home. Some still are learning English.

"Are we measuring what they know or how well they use a computer or their knowledge of English?" Venz said.

Many teachers and students said they preferred laptops or desktops over iPads. Students said they didn't care for the iPad's small screen. And, although students touched the screen for some functions, other tasks required a keyboard.

"I actually like the laptop better," said America Torres, a fourth-grader at Synergy Charter Academy in South Los Angeles. "Less work. Less motion. You get the computer in one piece."

Many students were less familiar with iPads, which could partially explain their discomfort.

Teachers, often with limited computer skills, also were learning, said Lee Isenberg, intervention and testing coordinator at Quincy Jones.

"It was overwhelming," said Melissa Ardon, a third-grade teacher at the school.

During the sixth week of the effort, the state assistance center logged 657 calls a day for help. L.A. Unified's technology staff was sometimes deluged, and some schools helped each other.

"Ninety percent of the stuff, we were able to figure out on our own," said Bancroft testing coordinator Pablo Flores.

To maintain faster Internet access, Bancroft asked teachers not to use computers for other tasks during testing hours. Students also moved their iPads around the library in search of stronger connections.

ICEF Public Schools, which runs 12 independently managed local academies, is looking ahead. It plans to incorporate typing lessons as well as making assignments more rigorous.

"A lot of the students don't know how to work around the Internet," said Justin Brown, a junior at ICEF's Frederick Douglass Academy High School in Jefferson Park. "They'll click ads that are viruses and type with one finger."

ICEF was reluctant to invest in technology upgrades in the former church the group leases for Douglass.

One solution was removable Internet hot spots in the ceiling. ICEF spent about $65,000 to improve Internet access, of which $20,000 came from a one-time state grant, said Chief Executive Parker Hudnut.

But students still reported uneven Internet strength. And some of the school's computers functioned poorly.

Other school systems were worse off.

Some "smaller districts don't have people dedicated to testing and have struggled to help principals and teachers," said Kathy Caric, a state education department field worker. Districts also raced to get technology in place. Financially troubled Inglewood Unified had to lease mobile computer labs as a quick fix, she said.

"Folks had a lot of anxiety," Caric said, adding: "This time next year I hope students will have a more problem-free experience."

howard.blume@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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