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Federal Lawmakers Weigh Computer-Adaptive Testing

By guest blogger Sean Meehan

Computer-adaptive testing, designed to respond to students' answers and more accurately pinpoint their performance level, is gaining support in both chambers of Congress as lawmakers consider proposals to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.

"Adaptive tests are already being used in several states, including Delaware, Hawaii, and Oregon, and at least 20 states plan to use adaptive tests by 2014-15. However, under the current law, these tests don't fulfill federal NCLB testing requirements.

That policy would change, however, under a bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Republican Congressman Tom Petri, and in language included in the Senate's latest draft of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was released this week. (The current version of ESEA is No Child Left Behind.)

Petri's Assessment Accuracy and Improvement Act, which is being considered by the House Education and the Workforce Committee, was motivated by the lawmaker's meetings with educators and administrators his home state of Wisconsin. He says schools in his district are already using adaptive testing for internal evaluation, but were running into "roadblocks" when trying to use the tests to fulfill federal requirements.

"The teachers were enthusiastic about [these tests], so I designed this legislation to help familiarize people with and show support for this approach," Petri said in an interview.

Advocates for adaptive testing say the tests provide a more precise picture of a student's abilities as the difficulty of the exam increases or decreases based on previous answers, allowing the test to determine whether a student is at, above, or below grade level more precisely than fixed tests. Questions are pulled from a large bank based on individual performance.

The tests also have faster feedback times than traditional tests, something that schools find valuable in adjusting their curricula to meet the needs of their students and in evaluating teacher performance.

Federal support for adaptive testing could also ease the costs incurred by districts who attempt to put in place those exams. Currently funding for these tests only comes from district and state funds.

School districts around the country are currently "speaking with their wallets," by spending scarce resources to voluntarily participate in this testing, Petri said in a statement last week, upon introducing the bill in the House.

Despite recent concern about the states' and districts' ability to handle online testing, Petri says he expects the bill to get bipartisan support and be included in the House draft of NCLB reauthorization. He has proposed identical bills three times since 2007.

In the Senate, the draft ESEA reauthorization bill includes a clause which says that "a state may develop and administer computer adaptive assessments" as its required tests. Additionally, the measure requires states to not only determine whether students are at grade level, but also "the specific grade level at which the student is performing," something that many consider a strength of adaptive testing.

The Senate is scheduled to consider the new ESEA draft next week.

For those new to adaptive testing, here's a video-graphic created by Education Week that explains the concept:

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