This article was written by Euna Kwon Brossman and Julianne Herts
I’m relieved to report that I should still be able to show my face in public, instead of hiding at home, head-down in shame. I have just taken the ICT Literacy Assessment. ICT stands for Information and Communication Technology, and it’s the Educational Testing Service’s new test aimed at assessing the technology skills of high school and college students.
So how did I find myself in a room full of high school juniors and seniors sitting down to take my first standardized test in almost three (!) decades?
Blame it on my spirit of adventure or foolishness, or the persuasive powers of the editor who told me about the new test aimed at finding out just how savvy our students are about certain skills — graphing, reading, and culling information. My assignment, should I choose to accept, would be to take this test, and then write a first-person account of my experience. Sure, I said breezily, sounds like fun.
I had been reading stories about how college freshmen were academically spot on, but in certain basic life-skills they were woefully unprepared. I leapt to the conclusion that the test was on life skills. It was right up my alley. I would ace it and make a few bucks along the way. The critical phrase that escaped me that day was “technology test.” Whoa.
In another corner of my writing life, my “Suburban Mom” column for the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, U.S. 1’s sister publication, I have recorded my technophobia. As the “Suburban Mom,” I have discussed how I should have been born in the era of the butter churn because I understand how a butter churn works; how my husband and kids have to turn on the elaborate theater room setup we have in the basement because I can’t remember which buttons to push; and how I refuse to text message because I fear carpal tunnel in my wrist or tendonitis in my thumb and I believe God meant for the opposable thumb to be used in other ways. If something doesn’t work or I can’t figure it out, I am not ashamed to play the role of the damsel-in-technology-distress.
Later I realized with growing dismay that the test was not the test I had thought I would be taking. It was the dreaded technology test. I would have to perform information management tasks — extract information from a database and develop a chart. I might have to download and install a (simulated) video player. Compare and contrast information from the web into spreadsheet. Complete a concept map. A concept map? What was that?
My horror grew when I realized they were putting me up against a high school student who would take the same test. I found myself beginning to cast around for a credible excuse to back out. Sorry, editor, massive fever coming on. I’m flying out to Torino that day. There were always the fallback scapegoats — the kids. Sorry, Tuesday won’t work. The little one is wrapping up his science project and we think he’s pretty close to finding a cure for cancer.
Backing out was unprofessional. I would find a face-saving device, lest I bomb completely. My competitor should be male. If he performed really well and I did not, I could blame it on gender differences, the left brain, right brain thing. That brilliant plan was dashed when I met Julianne Herts, a 16-year-old junior at West Windsor Plainsboro High School South, news editor of the student newspaper, and a U.S. 1 intern. It turned out she was nervous about taking the test because she was expected to do well, and so the pressure was on her. Meanwhile, I was expected to fail. Well, I guess that made me feel somewhat better.
The day before the test, ETS sent me these rules: 1.) The reporter must take the test as a student, not a reporter. 2.) He/she cannot identify himself/herself as a reporter until AFTER the test. 3.) No cameras and no notes taken during the test. 4.) No reprinting questions from the test in the article. 5.) No interviewing other test takers during or prior to testing. After is fine.
By the time I got around to checking out the ICT section of the ETS website, it was the morning of the test. In my defense, it had been an unusually zany weekend that included the Princeton Cotillion, a Cub Scout field trip, hockey, and the Super Bowl. Trolling the website, I immediately saw good reason for panic. Mild panic, but panic nonetheless.
I called my friend Janet. Help! Do you know how you use an asterisk in a Google search? I beseeched. No, she didn’t, but she figured it out on the computer and walked me through it. You’ll be fine, she reassured me. Remember: your strength will be in the interpretive part of the exam, right? So if you can’t figure out the answer to some of the technical questions skip them and move on to the questions involving interpretation.
I called my friend Maria. Help! How do you use pluses and minuses and quotation marks in a Google search? She did know the answers and walked me through that, as well. Maria then related an anecdote about teenagers using their I-Pods to cheat on tests, and teachers just figuring it out. Ha! Cheating devices! The old stick of gum trick! The writing-on-the-palm-of-hand trick!
Calmer thoughts prevailed. I had never stooped so low as to cheat and I wasn’t about to start, even if it meant I was about to parade my techno-ignorance in front of a good chunk of Central New Jersey. As I left the house I thought I should sharpen some number 2 pencils and bring them along. Then I remembered it was a technology test. No pencils needed. Just the mouse, point and click.
I stopped by High School South to pick up Julianne (gracious competitor that I am to give my rival a ride) and made our way to the Mercer County Vo-Tech/Arthur R. Sypek Center on Bull Run Road in Pennington off I-95, getting there promptly at noon.
We were greeted by Camille Rainiero, who runs the center’s vo-tech program serving high school students all across Central New Jersey. We sat down in a room with 22 computers and were joined by 20 other students, high school juniors and seniors all taking the pilot.
Rainiero told us to login. That’s when we hit the first technical glitch with the technology test. The system would not let everyone log on. An IT specialist came in to work on the problem and after a couple of minutes, some more students were able to logon, including Julianne and me. The first section asked for background, name, address, E-mail. The next section asked about our personal experience with computers and technology. What kinds of courses had we taken over the last couple of years? In my case, none! I figured my answer might help me in the event the scores were reported on some weighted scale. How confident are you about your ability to use the computer? The choices ranged from very confident to not confident at all, and my answers fell across the spectrum.
The next technical glitch occurred as we got to the meat of the test, something Julianne and I both found supremely ironic. We had to download and install before we started, but since we were logged on as students with no authority to do so, we could not get into the test. Three students were able to get in and start. The rest of us could not.
After some tinkering with the computers, Rainiero told us we would have to come back the next day. The rest of the students filed out. Julianne and I realized we could not come back the next day: it was now or never. Ms. Rainiero got us in under a special login and finally, after one full hour of battling the technical glitches, we were in.
The first thing I noticed was the digital clock at the top left of the screen ticking down the seconds. It took me back to the days when I took standardized tests, watching the sweep of the second hand on the classroom clock, listening for the teacher to give the go-ahead countdown with stopwatch in hand, all to ensure fairness. The screen told me the test would be made up of two sections, each with eight tasks to complete. It told me how much time I had for each section so I could budget my time wisely.
I glanced over at Julianne. She looked positively serene, calmly clicking away. As I read the instructions, my heart started pounding furiously. The test administrators were talking loudly, discussing the technical problems, and as their words bounced off the walls, I felt like there were tennis balls bouncing around in my brain. I realized that Julianne wasn’t bothered by the background noise. No wonder. My own 15-year-old loves to have the radio on in the background or listen to the I-Pod as she works. She finds the ambient sounds soothing. I, on the other hand, need absolute peace and quiet to think. I was clearly already at a disadvantage here.
Unlike the standardized tests of my day, which were mostly multiple choice, these were thinking problems. You had to read the scenario, analyze the information, then click on your answers. I discovered the navigation the hardest. I was afraid to click the mouse on the wrong place and lose information, so I proceeded very slowly. I read the question, then read it again, before moving on, worried that all the information would vanish before I was ready. I was tentative and in the beginning, I lost a lot of time because of it.
The words started to swim on the screen. I was passing the budgeted time on the first question and it crossed my mind that I might not finish the test. My task was to design an organization chart for a biology professor and his teaching and lab assistants. The instructions said I could use scrap paper so I drew out the org chart by hand, then gave up and finished by using the tried and true method of trial and error.
The second section went better. The computer part of it had a steep learning curve for me, so I had already become much more efficient about the process. There was still a lot of noise in the room and I still found it difficult to concentrate. Julianne looked beatific, radiant with purpose. I tried not to let that disconcert me.
Another task asked me to figure out magazine subscription trends using a graph. I had to recall my old friends, the x and y axis, concepts I hadn’t called on since high school. This section tested my ability to make decisions about using and interpreting information. With relief, I found it pretty friendly.
Many of the tasks tested my ability to zero in on important information and weed out the non-essential, a skill I use all the time in my writing. Other times I had to order information from most important to least, or present it in the best and clearest light. I had to prepare a slide presentation about a planet and organize word files based on their content. I had to prepare a win-loss sheet for a baseball team and determine what further games would need to be played.
I encountered another major technical glitch as I neared the end of the first section. My computer froze. I was downright scared, thinking all my work had been wiped out and I would have to start all over again. Thankfully, when I was rebooted, I was able to pick up where I left off. I finished the section just under the wire.
By contrast, I got to the very end of the second section with 11 minutes to spare on a 40 minute test. Familiarity with the navigation sped up my time considerably. On the SAT, with that much time to spare, I would have gone back to check on my work. On this test, once you clicked NEXT, there was no going back.
As I drove Julianne back we compared notes. She said that at times during the test, she had been bored. For me the test had been easier than I had feared. Had I felt somewhat relieved? Yes. Bored? No. Challenged? Yes. Not so much in the information itself, but in the test taking process — trying to figure out which buttons to push, which drop-downs to use, which file to click and drag, feeling like if I made a mistake, Big Brother, the computer, would never blink, and the clock would keep ticking away relentlessly.
I came away reminding myself to have my kids practice taking those standardized tests over and over again, especially the SAT, before taking it when it really counts. Test-taking is so much about comfort level, knowing what to expect, and being able to budget your time wisely.
I’m glad I took the ICT. I do not know my score yet, but I have a better sense of knowing what I don’t know, and what I need to do about it, both for my children and for myself. If Julianne does way better on that test than I do, bully for her, she should do better, and that would make me happy. It would mean that our schools are doing their jobs and teaching our children well. And whether that’s in reading, writing, arithmetic, or technology, it means that our future is in good hands.
I have to admit that when I was told I would be taking a technology test, I was nervous. This is a pilot program; I could be the only teenager taking it. Teenagers are said to be technology experts. I didn’t want to let down my generation by messing up our claim to fame.
The pilot program has not been perfected. The software we needed to take the test had not been installed on any of the computers, and the people giving the test were obviously a bit confused. While the adults waited patiently for the proctors to figure out what was going on, many of the teenagers, myself included, began surfing the web. I played the Internet quiz game “can you pass the third grade?” (www.pibmug.com/files/map_test.swf) for about 20 minutes. Eventually Euna Kwon Brossman, U.S. 1’s other reporter got in on the action, and yes, with our combined IQs we were able to “pass the third grade.” Eventually the proctor logged Euna and me on and installed the software for us.
I began to take the technology test, and was relieved to find it was easy. The World Wide Web was invented when I was five. I could never have made it to 11th grade if I didn’t have the skills required for the test. Can you make a graph? Can you use Power Point? Can you IM (instant message) a friend and use the information he or she gives you? Of course I can. At West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, I’m tested in these areas every time a school project is assigned.
The test’s “internet” was actually easier to use than the real thing; there was only so much you could do. Only one search engine was available and only one graphing program. The instructions were also very specific. Even things I’d never done before, such as select a bank for my friend to get a loan from, were relatively easy. There were only four banks to choose from and I had an E-mail with the exact information I needed from every one of them.
The E-mail inbox had several messages, a few of which were not needed for the test. Actually the test was otherwise pretty boring, so for amusement’s sake they were needed. E-mails informed me that I had purchased a pool table online and was expected to bring quiche to an upcoming dinner party. In fact all the tasks had real world story lines. I had apparently coached a baseball team and had to determine which teams would play in the finals by looking at their statistics. Also, I had to present information about a planet to a class of sixth graders.
I read that some schools are now allowing kids to use Palm Pilots and computers with Internet access during tests. The teachers reason that nowadays it’s more important that one be able to find and use information than it is for one to know it off hand.
It does seem a little ridiculous to make everyone so reliant on a single web of information. That sounds like the premise of a sci-fi movie, actually: If the Internet crashes no one will know anything, and we’ll plunge back into the Dark Ages. Dwindling energy supplies is a bigger worry; I don’t think society would fare so well in the long run if electricity suddenly disappeared. I don’t know how to grow crops, or knit, or cook a meal without an electric oven. So I don’t worry about the Internet’s demise leading to the downfall of civilization.
But then I recall learning that a hundred years ago, kids would sit at their school desks and recite facts for hours on end. They probably would not consider the use of a calculator on the SAT, or the performance of labs in science class, quality education. And how can tests accurately assess one’s history knowledge when the student has Internet access? This technology test seems like a good compromise; it tests the ability to find and use information without combining that skill with another.