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Culture

Chicago schools opt for paper and pencil over online tests

Technically Incorrect: Some schools in the Chicago area decide that the traditional methods of testing kids are more reliable.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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Is doing tests on computers too difficult? Chicago Tribune screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Chicago can be something of an old-fashioned, hardscrabble place.

Its people fight and claw and gnaw against the elements, natural and criminal alike.

Perhaps, though, some schools' adherence to old-fashioned ways might bear better intellectual fruit in the long run.

Some schools in the city and metro area, you see, have decided that technology isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Or, rather, that it has within it too many cracks. They've decided to eschew online tests for something that not every child (or adult) these days is familiar with.

As the Chicago Tribune reports, there's a fear that online tests don't exactly reflect the true ability of students. So the teachers are looking into the kids' wide eyes and saying: "This is called paper. And this is a pencil."

This isn't one or two schools. It's hundreds. They don't have confidence in the online PARCC testing system, one that enjoys all the fancy modern accoutrements such as drop-down menus, videos and an avatar giving you the answers. (I made up that last one.)

The testing season begins this week, and some schools worried that tech snafus would get in the way of accurately reflecting children's abilities. They also worried that some kids don't have the same sort of access to computer equipments as do others.

Pencil and paper actually costs more than online testing. Well, anything computerized is cheaper, isn't it? Some schools will allow pencil and paper for certain grades, but require others to take the online version.

Chicago isn't the only place where students use the rudimentary version of testing. In Louisiana everyone uses pencil and paper because the technology isn't yet fully in place. In New Jersey, 2015 is the last year in which schools will use pencil and paper for the High School Equivalency Test. In Michigan, there is pressure to move testing online. In Florida, younger children use pencil and paper for tests, while older ones have gone digital. New Mexico is moving this week to computers for the first time.

Yet there's a fascinating logic exercised by some administrators who believe that the online tests are actually harder than the Flintstones version.

Katharine Olson, assistant superintendent of Cook County schools, told the Tribune that she's concerned that such functions as drag-and-drop may be a drag for kids. She said: "There are a lot of things that are difficult. Children are good with technology in general, but that is a lot, on top of the cognitive demands of the content of the test."

There's something so bracing about the idea that computers make something harder. There's also something so fascinating about children being asked to use primitive tools to show their intelligence.

I wonder, though, how many kids will have to be reminded of which end of the pencil to hold and how to use it to, well, make a mark.