Several Tampa Bay schools give computer FCAT testing a try

Several local schools jump at the chance to skip the paper exams.

By Letitia Stein, Times Staff Writer
Published March 11, 2008

TAMPA - As FCAT season begins today, some students are saying goodbye to pencils and paper.

Several schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Hernando volunteered for computer-based testing. The first electronic testers are high school upperclassmen retaking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to graduate.

They are willing guinea pigs, none forced to use a computer.

But technologically-savvy kids may prefer it. This spring, more than two dozen Florida districts are offering the computer test, including Hillsborough. State officials aim to push computer-based testing in the future.

At Tampa's King High, Ismatara Hossain jumped at the option.

"I'm like more of a computer person," said Hossain, 18, a senior. "I think it will be a big difference."

Hillsborough's five pilot schools initially fretted about security. The district worked with test developer CTB/McGraw-Hill to make sure students can't surf the Internet or send e-mails while taking the test.

Wandering eyes were another worry. At King High, instructors converted discarded plywood into cubicle walls.

School testing chair Docia Michaels sees advantages to the digital test. A highlighting tool lets students mark reading passages. Questions appear on the same screen as the text.

Perhaps best of all, the roughly 20 King seniors planning to take the FCAT on computer can expect scores back sooner.

"My first thought was: Will the kids do better on a computer?" Michaels said. "So many of our kids grow up on a computer. They started using them in first grade."

On the state level, computer-based testing promises one day to be faster, cheaper and more efficient. But widespread use remains "a ways out there" said Cornelia Orr, who oversees assessment for the Florida Department of Education.

She said the state aims to expand computer testing for the nationally administered portion of the FCAT as soon as next spring.

Before totally converting to computer testing, the state still has to address issues with open-ended written responses. But it's only a matter of time.

"Most students ... probably their senior exams may be one of the last paper and pencil vestiges they'll ever take," Orr said, noting that entrance exams for many graduate programs are offered on computers.

The logistics remain daunting for many schools.

"It's hard to do this on top of the traditional FCAT," said Octavio Salcedo, testing director in Pinellas, where only two high schools and a program for medically ill students are offering the computer test. "There's just a lot of extra effort for schools."

Times staff reporters Jeffrey Solochek and Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Do-overs for FCAT

High schools offering computer testing for FCAT retakes:

Hillsborough: Brandon, Gaither, King, Plant City, Bowers-Whitley.

Pinellas: East Lake, Countryside, hospital homebound program

Hernando: Nature Coast Technical High and possibly other sites