Q: Our school is urging parents to give their kids more access to computers at home so that they can practice their keyboarding skills for tests given this spring. My middle-school-age son is an accomplished Minecrafter and gamer, but a really poor typist. Why does he need to know how to type to do well on a computer-based test?
A: If your son excels at Minecraft, he'll do fine on test items that require a student to "drag and drop" a correct answer, but he needs to polish his typing skills for the short answer and essay responses.
The old "fill in the bubble" multiple-choice tests are now as rare as carbon paper. Today's computer-based assessments make use of a range of digital capabilities to help kids "show what they know."
Created to align with Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the new tests are more nuanced and don't look for one right answer. They are packed with open response questions constructed to test whether students can think critically, analyze and solve problems, write a cogent essay and provide thoughtful, short responses to questions.
In other words, the tests give students opportunities to demonstrate their thinking -- something everyone agrees is hard with multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank items.
Most states assessing the CCSS use one of two test providers: Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC, parcconline.org/for-parents) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (smarterbalanced.org).
Each organization provides sample practice items for each tested grade on their websites. For example, a sample seventh-grade PARCC English test item asks students to read two passages about electricity, watch a short TED Talk video about building circuits with Play-Doh, and then write an essay, explaining their thinking with evidence from each source.
California educator Corinne Burton visits school districts around the country in her capacity as president of Teacher Created Materials, an education publisher. She says teachers are pushing to get students up to speed in keyboarding.
"We're seeing this all over," she says. "After years on the decline, keyboarding classes are coming back. Schools are setting instructional standards for keyboarding and beefing up their programs to get students ready for digital testing. Parents can help."
Burton has successfully used Typing.com and some online games with her own kids to prepare them.
She suggests that parents ask their kids' teachers which test provider their school is using.
"Go to the provider's website and try out with your kids the sample test questions at the appropriate grade level," says Burton. "You'll not only get a sense of how they'll fare at typing with time constraints, you'll see what skill and concept mastery the new standards expect of students."
In life, there are no multiple-choice answers, says Jeff Nellhaus, director of policy, research and design for PARCC. "You have to construct your own answers from your own knowledge and drawing on other sources to get information."
The new tests are designed to measure students' ability to do just that. It would be a shame if poor keyboarding skills prevented your son from demonstrating what he really knows.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)