One of the more troublesome aspects of standardized testing, about which parents and students are now getting press (and a lot of it) after they refused to take them in schools across the country, is the fact that the actual platform used by many students to take them is sort of difficult for real kids. They hate to take the tests on computers

That’s because it turns out that computers aren’t really a very good way to administer many examinations. As Rebecca Castillo, a California high school student, writes at Slate:

But testing math on computers? “Horrible and ridiculously hard,” in the words of my friend and classmate….The new Common Core Standards make the questions more confusing and difficult than they need to be.

For example, we students could not respond to the geometry questions by drawing out geometric figures—because the computer did not permit it. Instead, we had to write out our answers in words, and then explain, also in words (as opposed to graphs or figures) how we got the answers. This felt like testing a contestant’s eye-crossing skills on the show So You Think You Can Dance. It missed the whole point of the exercise.

This is surely very irritating, and seems like a particularly strange way to measure students’ math ability. But at least it would be equally irritating for all students, and would more or less even out across the nation.

But then there’s this:


Our campus had only a certain number of computers, fewer than the number of students tested. For months, we heard rumors that we would switch to a block schedule so all students would have the time necessary to test. Typically, classes are 50 minutes long with a 25-minute study hall, with seven periods in the course of the day; under a block schedule, each class is two hours long—but we only have four classes a day. The rumors proved true—and when testing time came in April, the changes to the school schedule affected my life schedule as well.

The testing took place over 16 days; during each two-hour testing period, a new class would come into the computer lab and test. The test consisted of two sections which were spread out over three or four days. Sometimes, students wouldn’t finish so they would have to be pulled out of another class later on to finish. So depending on how quickly the student could write essays, completing the entire test could take anywhere from four to seven hours.

What’s more, it impacted the whole schedule so that students had to get to school earlier and leave later than normal. But doing this in order to make sure every student got tested also meant that a lot of them had to be physically in school but unoccupied for large stretches of time. Castillo writes that on some days she went to class early and then had two hours of study hall before her next class.

This is the sort of disruption that can very much impact test scores—students are nervous and confused and dealing with a different schedule than they’re accustomed to—and doesn’t impact all students in the same way. The whole reason for the schedule disruption was just that the school didn’t have enough computers to administer all of the testing. This is a problem that’s more likely to occur in schools with low resources, the ones poor kids tend to attend.

Castillo writes “when it comes to testing, I think it’s best if we stick to the good ol’ pencil and paper.” She’s probably right, but it’s not going to happen? Why not? Well, because these are proprietary tests, administered by corporations using their computer programs. (It appears multinational conglomerate Pearson administers the test Castillo took.)

If we went back to paper tests, that would cost the companies that administer the tests a hell of a lot of money. But this way, it’s not the test makers that suffer here; the schools have to run around to make it work for the testing companies. It’s just the students who suffer.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer