Lessons Learned from the 2012 Grade 4 Writing Computer-Based Assessment (WCBA) Study

Common Core–aligned testing will start this spring, and the majority of students will take the new exams on computers. But are younger children ready for this change? This study from NCES—two studies really—waded into the topic, but ended up staying in the shallow end of the pool. First, the researchers conducted a usability study, which evaluated how sixty fourth-grade students handled computer tools and features (using a writing-test platform administered to eighth and twelfth graders as part of NAEP 2011) and surveyed the students’ prior experiences and perceptions of using computers. They found that the kids had little to no difficulty in identifying many navigation features, such as the “play,” “volume,” and “next” buttons, but had trouble with writing tools (“copy,” “paste,” “highlighter”) and reading the general directions. (It is notable that of the sixty students surveyed, 93 percent had a computer at home and 100 percent had access to a computer at school.) Those findings informed the design of the second study: a pilot writing assessment administered in 2012 to a (non-nationally representative) sample of 13,000 fourth graders. Students were asked to complete either two 30-minute writing tasks or three 20-minute writing tasks. However, the study didn’t report on well students performed on NAEP paper-and-pencil tests versus computerized tests. The closest it got was in providing information on word count, finding that fourth graders wrote on average 159 words per response on the 2010 NAEP paper-and-pencil writing test, while the pilot-study fourth graders wrote only 110 words (even though they were given ten minutes more). Though the findings on usability could be helpful for teachers tasked with preparing students for the upcoming Common Core tests, when it comes to how younger students will perform on computerized assessments, this study prompted more questions than it answered.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, Lessons Learned from the 2012 Grade 4 Writing Computer-Based Assessment (WCBA) Study (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, July 2014).

Pamela Tatz
Pamela Tatz is a Editorial Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute