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Computer Smarts Put to First Test

By Rita Robinson | LB Indy

Every fifth-grade student at El Morro Elementary School will fire up a personal computer on April 7 to take the first computer-based test of new state academic teaching standards known as the Common Core.

No more paper, No. 2 pencils or best-guess multiple-choice questions here.

The statewide pilot tests are the first to comply with the new standards, which require California public schools teach students computer skills. The new standards emphasize computer acumen as well as essay writing that cites supporting references.

But it’s not as simple as the click of a button. The district purchased 30 new Google Chromebook laptops at $400 each for the students to use. The students are trying to figure them out first, said El Morro’s 5th-grade teacher, Jennifer Chen.

“It’s such a big jump from a paper-and-pencil test. In the very beginning, I think there was a lot of anxiety with the kids and also with the teachers,” said Chen.  “But, honestly, you know kids with technology; they’re so fast. They really seem comfortable with it now, having used it a couple of times.”

Chen said she’s consulted with each student in her class with one-on-one time, quizzing them about their aptitude with computer tools. “I’ll go around the class to each student and say, ‘show me how to reposition the sentences’ or ‘click on certain paragraphs for language arts,’” explained Chen.  “For math, it might be drawing charts. I’ll ask them how to use the graphing tool, ‘show me how you type this sentence,’ ‘show me how you use the scratch paper’.”

Once the practical skills are down, Chen said the students will concentrate on content more next year.

El Morro principal Chris Duddy said he’s taken the test three times. “This is a field test,” said Duddy.  “We’re not going to give reports to the school or the parents on it. It’s their first experience with the online test.” Kids won’t receive scores either.

The tests are in language arts and math.  “Instead of mostly multiple choice questions,” said Duddy, “there are some multiple choice, short answer and essay questions.”

In the short answer category, for example, the student might be asked to write a sentence, cut-and-paste the correct graph or table or draw a line to connect certain points selected as the best answer.

The tests take three to four hours and will be spread over two to four days.  The real tests will be given in the spring of 2015.

Teachers won’t be able to assist students with navigational skills beyond getting to the test site.  “If the student can’t use or is having difficulty with the online tools, like copy and paste, highlighting, drawing lines or making a graph, that’s part of the testing,” said Duddy. “As far as the tools themselves, the kids need to be able to use and manipulate those.

But a district tech expert will be on hand during the testing in case a computer crashes, electrical power is lost or if any other minor catastrophe occurs.

Some parents expressed concern that the new state standards push students into a virtual world rather than providing real-world experience. For example, at a recent school board meeting, a sample question was discussed about graphing out a vegetable garden.  A parent present asked whether the students would actually get an opportunity to take the graph to the dirt and plant a garden.

“I’m getting very concerned that they’re moving away from hands-on learning,” said parent Sheri Morgan.  “After saying it’s great to know how to plan a garden online, with graphs and calculations, it’s also good to put that knowledge to practical use.”

But Duddy said virtual won’t replace actual. “We’re not doing away with those experiences,” he said. “We do have a garden here. Kids go out and really get their hands dirty and plant plants and watch them grow and harvest them and eat them. We still have art. We still have music. We still have physical education. It’s just a different way of integrating technology into teaching.  It’s not going to replace face-to-face collaboration or interaction with other humans.”

Duddy said the new Common Core teaching protocol is an improvement over memorizing facts to pass tests.

“Technology is obviously the future for these students in their lives,” he said. “I do like the short answer and essay questions. They show a greater understanding on the student’s part.  In the A, B, C multiple choice, there’s always two answers that are not going to be the right answer.”

In the past, it was easier for students to guess the right answer, Duddy said.  “When you have to fill in the blank with information or have to write an essay to support your answer, that really shows you know what you’re talking about versus picking one and, hey, you got it right, what the heck.”

El Morro fourth-graders will take their practice test from April 28 to May 1 and third-graders will take their first run-through from May 12-15.  El Morro will use the 30 new Chromebooks along with 30 HP laptops that the district has had for one to three years, Duddy said.

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