Inspired by all of the discussion and controversy over the new PARCC standardized tests for students and as a researcher of people's technology uses, I recently took part of the computerized PARCC fourth-grade math practice test. Even after going through the tutorial explaining the interface, I found myself occasionally as preoccupied with the system as I was with figuring out the math problems.
PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, proposes to test children's knowledge of language arts and mathematics. What its computerized version really does, however, is mix up students' math and language skills with their computer skills.
Parents and teachers across the country have been debating the value of the PARCC tests that children are taking at their schools this month. The heated discussions range from the value of such standardized testing to technical glitches with the computer system. What is often overlooked, however, is an additional important challenge of the computerized test: varying technology skills among students that will likely affect their scores and mix math and literary assessment with technology assessment.
You may be thinking that I just don't get computerized testing because I am an adult and not a tech-savvy child who grew up in the Internet age.
Assuming that children are naturally tech savvy, however, is a mistake. My research over the past decade, along with that of others, suggests that students' family background is very much related to their abilities, with those from less privileged backgrounds less skilled at using the Internet.
Even among more privileged populations, plenty of variation in skills exists. Accordingly, using unfamiliar computer systems has a good chance of negatively influencing test scores measuring students' math and literary skills.
For two decades I have been studying whether people can improve their lives through their use of the Internet. In this case, it may have the opposite effect. As a researcher on the relationship between Web-use skills and socioeconomic status, I have found that the Internet may be perpetuating inequalities as much as it has the potential to alleviate them.
The PARCC Web site offers a tutorial so that users can familiarize themselves with the system. The tutorial was likely compiled with care, but that does not make the system as a whole intuitive.
Presumably one advantage of such a system is to help with automated grading. After solving a few of the grade-four math questions, I decided to see how the system handled my responses. I was told that the system was unable to score my response of 4½ to one particular question. The answer key listed 18/4 as the correct response. While 4½ equals 18/4, the system seemed unable to figure that out immediately. A computer system that cannot figure out that 4½ is the same as 18/4 does not leave much confidence in said system. And it does not leave much confidence in the test that 4½ may not be an acceptable response when nothing from the system suggested that reporting the answer in such a format was a problem.
Of course, being able to translate math and language skills to different media is an important skill itself. But we should test for topical knowledge in a way that does not blend that knowledge with technology skills so that we know specifically where students are excelling and where they may be falling behind.
After all, a poor math score using the computerized version of PARCC could be due to the unfamiliar and at times confusing nature of the computer interface, it could be the result of poor math skills, or perhaps both. By conflating computer skills with math skills, students, parents, teachers and schools are left without knowing whether more resources need to be poured into math training or computer skills support. To know where resources are most needed in the educational system, it is important for assessment tools to test one skill at a time.
If PARCC is the way to move forward, it is imperative that schools offer the option of taking the test on paper, a plan that some districts have implemented. Not only does the computer-based system generally confuse different types of skills, but lack of computer skills are most likely to disadvantage those from already less privileged backgrounds. A system meant to educate all should not be based on tests that disadvantage some children from the get-go.
Eszter Hargittai is the Delaney Family Professor in the Communication Studies Department and faculty associate of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She is a past fellow of The OpEd Project.