Forget whether Johnny can read. The new question is: Can Johnny type?
It's a question now because Idaho elementary school students as young as 8 will be typing essay-style answers on the new Common Core achievement test next spring.
For older students, that shouldn't be much of a concern. But for many third-, fourth- and fifth-graders taking the hours-long test, that could be a challenge.
"We want to make sure that students' ability to answer questions ... isn't impacted by their computer skills," said Ann Farris, a Boise School District area director.
Students work on computer skills as part of their education. But that "is very different from sitting down and typing an essay," Farris said. Exams could ask students to complete a story and explain their answers to math questions.
In spring, nearly all students in grades three through 11 will take the test under development by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of 23 states working on an exam that will ultimately be used to rate school and student performance.
Those exams are based on Common Core State Standards, a set of goals supported by 45 states for what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school.
Idaho chose to take the exam this spring, which is to field-test 22,000 questions across member states. Neither parents nor schools will get results.
Exams will be taken for score beginning in the 2014-2015 school year.
State Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, has suggested limiting the achievement tests to seventh grade and higher, in part because the typing could be difficult for some children in lower grades.
HOURS OF TESTS
Typing is just one of the worries about the coming tests. Some Idaho districts already have complained that the exams which could take 7 to 8 1/2 hours are too long, eat into instruction time, clash with other tests students must take, and will monopolize computer labs across the state during the eight-week testing window.
The test will require students to type and adeptly use a mouse to drag and drop material on the computer screen, said Don Coberly, Boise School District superintendent.
"Our concern is for the kids," Coberly said.
Coberly and several other Southwest Idaho superintendents will meet Friday with state schools chief Tom Luna to discuss the exam and to ask the state to put off the Smarter Balanced test for more analysis.
Last week, Kansas backed out of the testing consortium after the state's Board of Education opted for an exam it would control locally and which would cost $1.1 million less than the $6.8 million cost of the consortium exam.
Joe Willhoft, consortium executive director, defended the length of the test, saying it is needed to plumb student knowledge beyond a multiple-choice test.
Even as superintendents hash out the future of the consortium exam, in computer labs in Meridian and Boise school districts, instructors are looking for ways to make skilled typists out of 8- and 9-year-olds.
Elaine Phares, a computer instructor at Meridian's Gateway Elementary School (formerly McMillan Elementary), brings in objects such as Venetian glass that fourth-graders can look at and touch. "We talk about them," she said.
Then she asks them to type five sentences about the object.
"To do that is a huge challenge," Phares said. "The first time they did it, they stared (at the computer). They don't know what to say."
Phares tapped the resources of five Centennial High School art students Amber Wolff, Jasmine Mitchell, Maggie Kemmer, Garrett Greitzer and Heba Aljnabi to decorate her computer lab over the Thanksgiving holiday in a way that would make typing fun and put a bit of competitive spirit into student learning.
The art students combined motifs of the Walt Disney movie "Wreck-It Ralph" and the board game Candyland, in which the students' cut-out cars advance around the room as their word-per-minute typing skills increase.
"I like to be competitive," said fifth-grader Damien Hooper, 11. "I like to move my car."
Students in the districts can spend from 30 minutes to an hour in computer labs each week.
Boise School District isn't requiring all its elementary schools to provide keyboard instruction. For those who do, it can take away from computer research, math or reading exercises time that the kids need to build the knowledge on which they may be tested.
"We will have students having a hard time figuring out an answer, let alone figuring out how to type it," said Beverly Boyd, principal at Hawthorne Elementary School.
Smarter Balanced officials say typing did not come up as a concern during a pilot test given to 650,000 students last school year. Teachers who reviewed the written responses did not mention typing as an obstacle to students answering the questions.
Neither did researchers, who watched students take the exam, and then asked them questions about it.
"We do not see it as a big hindrance," said Willhoft, the consortium executive.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts