Computerized Practice Tests Boost Student Achievement

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Like many teachers, I have had to adjust to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act requirements and to the need for high performance on state achievement tests. However, my fourth-graders and other students at Anna McDonald Elementary School in Manhattan, Ill., have benefited from computerized practice tests that prepare them for the real thing.

Manhattan School District 114 is currently undergoing major changes. Until about 1999, Manhattan was a rural community. Since then, several housing developments have replaced farms, so we foresee the need to build new schools and increase staffing. In terms of technology, we are well prepared for change. To accommodate our school’s 638 preK-5 students, we have 30 Apple iBooks, a 34-station computer lab and a computer in each classroom.

‘Practice Makes Perfect’

For the last two years, 12 teachers in our district have administered practice tests provided by Achievement Builders Corp. (ABC) to identify learning deficits in our pupils. These “Practice Makes Perfect” Web-based tests, which are correlated to state standards, include items from previous Illinois state standards sample tests for third-, fourth-, fifth-, seventh-, eighth- and 10th-grade students. The 40-minute tests are hosted on behalf of ABC by Questionmark Corp. (www.questionmark.com), who provides the software for creating, administering and reporting on the practice tests.

Statistical reports based on the results of these practice tests help us tailor our teaching to address learning deficits in the months leading up to the state assessments. For example, an item analysis report provides a chart that indicates what percentage of students chose a particular answer. This helps identify where the learning problem lies. The analysis might reveal that a student understands the basic idea but is falling down when it comes to working a problem through to completion. This information then gets channeled into strategic curriculum development.

Students are given raw scores and teachers receive scores and statistical reports within 24 hours of each test. By quickly identifying problems, there is plenty of time to address learning deficits and to help students succeed in these areas. Comparative reports from tests taken a few weeks apart help us track each student’s progress. And now that I get tests marked automatically and receive reports that point out learning strengths and deficits, I am spending less time grading tests and more time teaching.

We have seen tremendous improvement in the deficit areas - scores from four tests given over a seven-month period bear this out. My class scored in the 40th percentile on the first science test, but we ended the year in the 74th percentile. One of my students went from the 44th percentile to the 80th in science; in social science, he went from the 45th percentile to the 85th.

Motivating Students

I have responded to the test results and curriculum audits by building activities into our regular learning patterns. When a practice test revealed a need for better map- and graph-reading skills among my students, I began incorporating maps and graphs into our daily routine. When a test indicated some misunderstanding about measurement, I incorporated projects that required students to measure things.

Questionmark partner Enginet Technologies affiliated every test question with state standards. Students are given raw scores, while teachers receive the scores and the Questionmark Perception reports that correlate the students’ performance to the standards. A registration process sets the security level for anyone who has access to the Perception reports. Principals can see reports for every classroom and student; superintendents can see results at the school, classroom and individual levels; and teachers can view the results of their own pupils.

In addition, our students take the tests in many different areas at school. When grouped, they can access the tests in a learning lab with a computer for each child. Individually and in small groups, students can also access the tests from classroom computers. Home-schooled students may soon be able to take the assessments as well.

Students seem to be more motivated to take tests on computers or iBooks than with paper and pencil. Once I explain the procedures, students have no problems taking the tests. Many students like being able to look at their previous scores because they see this as a challenge to better themselves on the next test. These tests also give students immediate feedback. In addition, practice-test results are valuable tools for communicating with parents, because printouts of the results can be used during parent-teacher conferences as a basis for discussion.

I have found it invaluable to use the practice tests early and often. The sooner students can begin the testing program, the more chances they have to practice before state testing. By taking practice tests four to five times prior to the state testing, students are showing significant improvement within their deficit areas. More important, the students are enjoying themselves.

To review the practice testing program, visit www.abctests.com/take_the_test.htm.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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