Ditching pencil and paper


Williston, state gearing up for switch to computer-delivered assessments

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

August 22, 2013

The demand for number two pencils is about to drop sharply in Vermont.

Students will soon ditch the fill-in-the-bubble multiple choice standardized tests and turn to computers for a new assessment program.

Vermont is one of 28 states involved in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of states working to establish a new assessment system based on a common core of academic standards. The new assessments will replace the New England Common Assessment Program, known as NECAPs, in the 2014-2015 school year.

“They use the most up-to-date digital technology for testing students,” said Michael Hock, director of educational assessment at the Vermont Agency of Education and one of eight elected representatives to the Smarter Balanced Executive Committee. “It’s going to look very different to students.”

The assessments are aligned with common core requirements, which are being phased in over a period of five years, culminating in 2015, the same year the new assessments begin. The requirements were developed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers—which Hock described as a “who’s who of experts in reading and language arts and mathematics.”

The requirements are intended to make sure students are ready for college or employment after high school by working back through each grade level to see what skills students should acquire by that age.


Students in Williston took a pilot Smarter Balanced exam in the spring.

“It’s a good change,” Williston School District Principal Walter Nardelli said. “I think we’ll know more about it as time goes on. I think it’s a move in the right direction, and I think it’s going to set even higher standards. We’re really going to have to look at what’s expected and make sure our students are ready.”

Hock said the Smarter Balanced assessments will be more accurate, more secure, faster and cheaper.

The tests are adaptive, meaning each student begins with a question that is in the middle of student ability level for that grade. If the student answers correctly, the next question is harder. If they answer incorrectly, the following question is easier.

“The computer program keeps doing that model until it gives the best possible prediction it can of the student’s ability level,” Hock said.

Tailoring the tests to each student’s ability level will save student time and more accurately gauge student’s ability levels, Hock said. Currently, Hock said, there are some students who sit down to the NECAP exams and can’t answer a single question. With individualized questions coming from a larger pool, the new assessments will also make it difficult to peek at a neighbor’s answers.

Results will also be available faster—some immediately, some within one month. NECAP results are available approximately three months after tests are taken.

The computer also offers advantages to students with disabilities.

“If students aren’t strong readers, a math test can end up being  a test of reading,” Hock said, adding that the computer-administered test can allow students to have questions read to them.

It also allows for more creative answering. For example, Hock said, rather than filling out a multiple choice bubble to identify an isosceles triangle, students can be asked to build one themselves. The computer-delivered tests also open students up to digital tools that are part of modern learning. For example, students can use a split screen to read a passage and answer a question at the same time. Or, students can use a highlighting tool to mark important passages as they read.

The Smarter Balanced Assessments are slightly cheaper than other standardized tests, and they come with training materials and interim tests that can be utilized in the classroom.

“It’s a much better assessment and more tools are available to teachers for the same or less than what we’re paying now,” Hock said.

The costs are shared between 28 states, and the research and development of the assessments was primarily funded by a $180 million federal grant through the Race to the Top program.

The assessments cost approximately $27 per student—though Hock said that figure is an estimate subject to change depending on how many students are enrolled and whether more states join the consortium.

In addition, the 28 states involved can share information and techniques.

“All the states are developing materials and sharing them with each other,” Hock said. “I don’t know how you put a price tag on that. It’s a great advantage.”

Currently, the state gives schools the option to administer NECAP exams on a computer. It is also made available to students with special needs—for example, enlarged text for students with vision problems.

All students, though, will take the new computer-delivered exams in the spring of 2015. The NECAPS are typically administered in October, when Nardelli said students are just settling back into school.

For more information, including sample questions, visit