Nine schools to pilot online test

Well-sharpened No. 2 pencils and columns of oval bubbles - the classic elements of standardized testing - will be replaced with keypads and computer screens as diocesan elementary schools move toward Web-based testing this year.

The transition will make "testing more progressive and mirror what other Catholic schools and public schools are doing," said Leslie Lipovski, diocesan coordinator of curriculum.

Nine schools plan to abandon the paper TerraNova test, used by the elementary schools for more than a decade, to pilot an online program this fall. All 37 diocesan elementary schools will administer the test next academic year.

St. Andrew in Clifton, Sacred Heart in Winchester, St. Bernadette in Springfield, Holy Family in Dale City, St. Thomas Aquinas in Woodbridge, St. James in Falls Church, St. Leo the Great in Fairfax, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Vienna and St. Mary in Alexandria volunteered to use the "Scantron Performance Series" assessment. Created by the company that makes the machine-readable bubble sheets, the online exam is not your grandparents', or even your parents', Scantron. The Internet-based exam provides nearly immediate results, adapts to each student's ability level and tracks student learning over time.

"Ultimately, the test is better at providing teachers with direct, individualized information so they can help students thrive," said Maureen Ashby, principal of Holy Spirit School in Annandale and a member of the assessment committee that recommended the test.

Like TerraNova, Scantron will be administered to third- through seventh-graders and cover reading, language arts and math with multiple-choice questions. But while it can take weeks to obtain TerraNova results, the Web-based exam generates almost instantaneous data that immediately can inform classroom instruction.

"We all know that if a student has missed a basic concept, instruction in that concept is necessary before more advanced concepts are presented," said Sister Bernadette McManigal, superintendent of schools. The fast results will be "helpful to teachers to plan effective lessons, geared to the needs of the individual students."

Scantron's adaptive capability means each student takes a test customized to his or her learning level. If a student answers a question correctly, the subsequent question will be more challenging; if it is answered incorrectly, the next will be easier.

While TerraNova was given once at the end of the school year, the new test will be administered three times - in September, January and May. "Together they'll paint a picture of student progress and allow teachers to observe learning over time," said Lipovski.

Red flags go up for many parents and teachers when they hear "more testing," said Janet Cantwell, principal of St. Mary and a member of the assessment committee. "Standardized testing understandably has gotten a bad rap, but it comes down to what kind of tests they are and how they are used," she said.

With Scantron, the diocese uploads test questions that reflect what is taught in the classroom.

"Teachers don't have to teach to the test, because what's on the test mirrors the curriculum," said Cantwell. Rather than a label of student ability, results are like a thermometer gauging how thoroughly students have absorbed material.

The online assessments "will be balanced by teacher-made materials and classroom observations," said Sister Bernadette.

More testing does not mean less instruction time. TerraNova tests took around two hours every morning for a week, so students were drained for the rest of the day. "Instruction basically came to a grinding halt," Ashby said.

The new tests, however, are more targeted and take about 45 minutes, or one classroom period.

Plans are in place to handle problems unique to online exams, like cyberattacks and power outages. Firewalls provide testing security, and if a building loses power, Scantron saves input for two weeks, "so students don't lose any work," said Lipovski.

In Virginia public schools, the shift to Web-based tests began 15 years ago, according to Charles Pyle, director of communications for the state Department of Education. Around 3 million students take Virginia's Standards of Learning tests each spring.

According to Patrick Lofton, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the National Catholic Educational Association, Catholic schools nationwide started using Internet-based tests about a decade ago. Both the Washington Archdiocese and Richmond Diocese now use the online Scantron test.

Most children are savvy technology users, so administering Web-based exams is simply "moving into their learning modality," said Cantwell.

A school's ability to test online depends on its infrastructure, such as sufficient electronic devices and bandwidth. One reason the Arlington Diocese chose Scantron was its ability to be used on various devices.

"Each school has its own budget and resources; some can't seat 30 children at once and some have a one-to-one ratio of computers to students," said Ashby. "Because each school is coming at it from a different place, we wanted a test that could be used on iPhones, Chromebooks and laptops."

St. Bernadette, for example, has a cart of Chromebooks, which will be moved from room to room for testing.

Lipovski is grateful to the nine schools that are willing to work out potential kinks in administering the test.

Sister Bernadette said she hopes the pilot program paves the way for "a very smooth transition in our schools, a smooth transition for teachers, students and parents."

"My hope is that the new test will help us better understand and serve children's academic needs, and in doing so create an environment where they feel safe and secure," said Cantwell. "Because when they feel safe they are more open to God's presence in their lives. And that is of foremost importance."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015