By PAMELA MENDELS
Pencil vs. Computer: Study Asks If It Makes a Difference on Tests
ater this month, about 150 fourth graders in the Wellesley, Mass., public school system are scheduled to spend two hours or so in classrooms monitored by exam proctors as they complete the essay portion of a state standardized test.
It may sound like another nerve wracking exercise in high-stakes testing, but in this case the students, some of whom will do their writing on computers, others with old-fashioned paper and pencil, can breathe easy. This is one test that won't count for them.
Rather, the mock-exam session is part of a study going on in Wellesley these days to take a look at a cyber-age question: Should school officials start exchanging No. 2 pencils for keyboards when they give essay examinations to an emerging generation of computer-savvy students?
It is a question crying out for an answer, says Matthew King, superintendent of Wellesley schools and a person who far prefers the computer to handwriting.
Two studies have found evidence that students used to keyboarding are working at a disadvantage on pencil-and-paper tests. ||
"If I were given a written test in which I had to use a pencil, I'd be in big trouble," said King, who oversees an affluent suburban Boston school district of about 3,800 students. "If that's true for me, I can imagine what it would be like for young people who are making more use, at younger ages, of computers for writing."
The study, which is being financed by the Massachusetts Department of Education and will take a look at eighth and 10th graders, too, comes at a time when schools are feeling the impact of two major trends in education, study researchers said.
One is the push to get technology into schools and students onto computers. In some cases this has led teachers to encourage students, especially those for whom writing and drafting with a pencil is awkward, to use computers for composition instead.
The other trend is increased emphasis on testing to see if students meet minimum state academic standards. Today, about 48 states have such exams and increasingly the tests are becoming serious business, determining things like whether students are promoted to the next grade or whether schools are performing adequately.
In Massachusetts, for example, members of the high school class of 2003 will become the first in that state required to pass theMassachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System Test, better known as MCAS, in order to receive a high school diploma.
It is common for these state tests to have an essay section, but rare for them to be given with anything other than a pencil. The potential problem, therefore, researchers suspect, is that the technology trend and the test trend could be colliding, at least for young people who routinely use computers for writing.
When handed a pencil and notebook for a high-stakes test, these computer-trained students, who are used to the speed and ease or word-processing software, could end up turning in essays far inferior to what they are capable of producing at a keyboard, researchers say.
Indeed, two studies he has helped conduct since 1997 have found some evidence that students used to keyboarding are working at a disadvantage on pencil-and-paper tests, said Michael K. Russell, the main researcher on the Wellesley study. Russell is a professor and senior research fellow for the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College.
Russell and Thomas J. Pilati, director of libraries and educational technologies for Wellesley schools, want to see if there is a similar result in the study in Wellesley. The researchers also hope to explore what questions are raised when students are allowed to use computers for test-taking.
Already, they have uncovered some problems.
One, is that if students are given the option -- pencil or computer -- they can't be counted on to make the wisest decision. In one of the previous studies, Russell said, some students said they preferred to use computers even though they were slow typists and might have fared better in longhand. Perhaps they were attracted by the novelty of using a computer or by the idea that technology is fun, he said. In any case, "If you give kids a choice, a lot are going to make the wrong choice," he said.
Russell saw another potential problem when older Wellesley students participated in the study last month. Some computer-equipped students with access to printers wanted to print out rough drafts of their essays, revise them on paper and complete the revisions on the computer screen.
To anyone who regularly uses a word-processing program for composition this way of writing seems only natural. But imagine the headaches for school officials who bend over backward to try to prevent cheating on exams.
"This introduces security problems," Russell said. "You have noise, you lose control. It complicates the whole testing environment."
Whatever the results of the study, Robert A. Schaeffer, public education director of The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Cambridge, Mass.-based advocacy group, said the research is an important step in examining possible inequities in test-giving in the age of the computer.
"We need to make sure that the way we are having people respond on those tests is, in fact, a level playing field," he said.
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