Maryland students who took the new statewide standardized tests on paper last spring did better than those who took the tests on a computer, according to a state analysis.
The differences in the results were most marked on the English test, but also were seen in eighth-grade math, and on the Algebra I and Algebra II portion of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, or PARCC. The tests were given for the first time last year in the third through eighth grades and to some high school students.
State officials said more high-performing students took the test on paper than online — skewing the results. About 80 percent of Maryland students took the test online, but all students in Harford County took the test on paper because of a lack of computers. Harford students have generally scored above the state average on the tests in the past.
But the Harford effect accounted for only 40 percent of the difference between online and paper results, according to the state analysis. The rest, state officials said, is not clearly understood.
"We simply don't know enough to understand what is going on here to draw long-term conclusions," said Jack Smith, the interim Maryland superintendent.
Officials did make some educated guesses.
S. James Gates, a nationally known University of Maryland physicist and state school board member, suggested that some students who took the test online might not have done well if their teachers did not give them practice using the online format.
For instance, students who took the math test online might not have understood how to use the "equation editor," a box on the computer screen where students were required to write out answers to a math problem.
"If you told me I had to use an equation editor, that would be an impediment," said Gates. "You might think I was a blithering idiot."
A similar issue could explain the lower scores on the online English test. Students were asked to give written answers to questions in a box on the computer screen that was smaller than the paper test version.
Although the online box expanded to whatever length was needed, state officials said students taking the test on a computer might have thought they were expected to write a shorter answer. Longer answers generally received higher scores.
The box for writing online has been changed for the test this spring.
Maryland schools are expected to move almost entirely to an online format for testing in the next couple of years, and the disparity in results between paper and online tests has not changed the timeline.
However, the state school board must decide in the coming year whether to continue to use the PARCC test. The test is given in a number of states, but Maryland officials could decide to shift to a different exam or spend money to write a new test.
Smith is recommending that the state school board continue giving the test this spring. In October, he said the board would then have two years of results and could better assess whether to stick with the PARCC test after 2017.