On Campus

California’s new online tests take a little courage for bubble-trained takers

naustin@modbee.comFebruary 19, 2014 

Field trials of California’s new online testing system are set to begin March 18 and run through the end of school. About 3 million students will take the Smarter Balance assessments but receive no score as schools and test makers work out the bugs and check to see which questions completely bomb.

“It’s an exciting time for our students and our schools as California prepares to usher in assessments that reflect more of the real world than a bubble test ever could,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson as he announced the testing window Wednesday.

Even with the old paper tests, scoring had to wait until every school was done, and questions that too many students got wrong were rejected as flawed. With online testing, a lot more can go wrong. For starters, not every school has enough computers or Internet bandwidth. If a third-grader’s essay answer is gibberish, does he not know the answer or does he not know how to type?

Just the switch from No. 2 pencils to mouse clicks would be enough to lower scores the first year, test-taking research shows. Add harder questions and schools have good reason to fear lower scores. Giving the numbers a pass for a year may give kids and teachers a chance to get their bearings and soften the statistical pain.

To check it out, I went online and took a fourth-grade math test. It asked me to multiply 3 times 4 and subtract three-digit numbers, but it also gave me a word problem in which I added numbers to a drawing and solved for area. The answer, 20, I had to create from a list of 0 to 9. Another problem had me to drag 2/4, 4/1 and 1/4 to the correct spots on a number line. Simple math, but a really different experience.

I also took an eighth-grade English test, reading a passage about an 1860 millwright. The questions asked me to evaluate the mood of the piece and the significance of a repeated phrase. There were two essay questions requiring me to pull details from the text. I have to say, they were a lot harder than the sample multiple-choice questions on the old test.

For more on Smarter Balanced testing, see www.smarterbalanced.org. For more on the field test, visit www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sa/smarterftqa.asp. See a video on high school testing at http://tinyurl.com/HighSchooltestvideo. Practice taking a test at https://sbacpt.tds.airast.org/student.


Spring break will start on March 29 for most schools. To send families off to their travels, I’d like to offer ideas for back-seat activities, the kind we all came up with before DVDs and drop-down screens became minivan staples. Spotting license plates, counting down miles to upcoming towns, great snacks that don’t smear the seats – send me your best ideas and favorite stories via email to naustin@modbee.com.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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