Embracing a new test

Published 5:01 pm Saturday, April 28, 2012

Some leaders in the Suffolk school system are worried about a new Standards of Learning assessment format that will require students taking the annual statewide math tests to exhibit stronger computer and critical thinking skills.

The new exams will cover the same material that has been required learning since 2010, but they will be offered in a different format than they were in the past. Instead of a long series of multiple-choice questions, the new exams will be delivered via computer and will feature drag-and-drop answers, graphing, short answers and “hot spots,” in which answers may be objects, graphics or text labels.

One Suffolk School Board member has said he is concerned the new test will be unfair to students who do not have computers at home, and the state school superintendent has warned districts that they should expect lower scores as students adapt to the new format.

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The problem with that kind of thinking is that it ignores some key facts about the world as it exists today. First, a survey conducted in 2007 by Suffolk Public Schools indicated that 86 percent of the city’s public-school students had Internet access, which implies they also had some way to connect to the Internet. That percentage likely has risen in the intervening five years.

And it’s not as if students without computers at home are coming into the exams without any exposure to them. Suffolk’s schools have rooms full of computers that are available during lab classes, during study halls and before and after school. Rare indeed would be the modern student who came into the new SOL exams without an understanding of how to use a computer.

Which raises perhaps the most important point regarding the new tests: It is entirely appropriate for students to be tested on their ability to use computers for basic operations. Computers are firmly entrenched in every part of society today, and the ability to operate them is just one more skill that every graduate will need in order to be a productive member of that society.

Want a job as a cashier? You’d better know how to operate a computer. The same is true for mechanics and contractors and warehouse workers and just about any career path available to graduates today.

Furthermore, the world rarely offers the opportunity to solve problems by multiple choice. What today’s graduates need are critical thinking skills, which are rarely tested well through multiple-choice questions. Most solutions require an application of logic and thought best demonstrated in a test by answers to short-answer or even discussion questions.

Virginia’s Department of Education was right to set up this new testing system, and Suffolk school administrators should embrace it, rather than complain about it.