Thursday, April 25, 2024

PA: Let's Digitize The Big Standardized Test

Pennsylvania has lagged behind many other states when it comes to moving the Big Standardized Tests on line. I suspect this is related to a small disaster in our state's testing history.

If you are a teacher of a certain age, you probably recall years ago when the state decided to try the practice test in an online form. I'm not in a position to say exactly what happened, but it certainly seemed like the kind of thing that would happen if a hundred thousand students tried to log on to a system set up to handle about ten. Schools across the state wasted the better part of a day trying to get their students to connect with and complete the online version of the test. 

But Governor Josh Shapiro has announced that we are going to try again

Shapiro announced the plan at a middle school in Allegheny County, reported by Kim Lyons at Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

The plan is supposed to take two years, which seems ambitious. Shapiro suggests that the on line version will take 30 minutes less time to take, which I'm guessing doesn't include the time trying to get all the students logged in to their school network and then logged in to the test. 

Pennsylvania has the PSSA test for elementary and the Keystone exams for the high schools. The Keystones are the result of an ambitious plan to create end-of-course exams for everything, a plan that never quite came to fruition, thank God. The tests cost something in the neighborhood of $50 million, but that's not counting hours lost or money spent on test prep workbooks and materials that nobody would ever buy if the BS Test wasn't looming over them.

PA Secretary of Education Khalid Mumin offered this bit of bureaucratic bloviation:
While Pennsylvania is among a group of states that take a relatively minimalist approach to statewide standardized testing and administers only the minimum number of assessments required by federal law, we have listened to feedback from the field and the public and have responded with a plan that will benefit schools, educators, and Pennsylvania’s 1.7 million learners.

I'm pretty sure feedback from the field and the public would get us to Shapiro's conclusion, which is that he'd just as soon scrap the tests entirely. This is absolutely the correct choice, but Shapiro notes that it would lose the state $600 million in federal bribery funding. 

So instead Pennsylvania will do the opposite-- Mumin announced that the state would be introducing a new benchmark test to take in addition to BS Tests themselves. Yay.

The online version should cut scoring and turnaround time, though the process of sending scores back to schools still involves the step in which politicians and bureaucrats look at the results and decide what the cut scores will be this year. Since PSSA/Keystone season is right now, PA teachers can still expect to receive "data" about their current students long after they can do anything with it. 

About a third of PA schools already do the on line thing. It's not clear how Shapiro will help bring the rest up to speed, particularly in the case of schools that have connectivity or hardware issues; if everyone's going to take the test online, everyone needs a computer with a working internet connection to do it, not just a single floating class set of laptops with a 20% failure rate on any given day.

Shapiro also says that the plan is to format the questions in "ways students are already familiar with" which assumes a lot about student tech familiarity. Actually, what it means is that schools will be replacing their hard copy test prep notebooks with licenses for on line test prep software that makes sure that students become familiar with the formats.

Yes, the only good answer is still "Get rid of the whole thing." Maybe someday we'll elect people at the federal level who stop demanding it. 

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