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State Superintendent of Education John White makes a point while speaking at the annual meeting of Jump Start, which allows high school students to get workforce training in addition to regular academic classes, Tuesday Jan. 23, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

In an unusual move, state Superintendent of Education John White is questioning how a national test was conducted because of concerns that the first-time use of computers may cause lower scores for Louisiana students.

The exam is called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

How students nationally fared on reading and math exams will be released on Tuesday.

Those and other results make up what is known as the nation's report card.

Students in Louisiana typically score low, and in 2015 results in reading and math ranged from 43rd to 49th nationally.

White raised the issue in a March 23 letter to Peggy C. Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees the exams.

The 2017 NAEP test marked the first time that most students took the exams using computers rather than pencil and paper.

Students typically perform better on paper tests, and White noted that officials have taken steps to account for those differences.

But even with those efforts, White wrote, there is a possibility that differences in computer savvy will affect some states more than others.

"As a potential illustration of this point, no Louisiana student in 4th grade or 8th grade had ever been required to take a state assessment via a computer as of the 2017 NAEP administration," according to the letter.

"This fact, coupled with a variety of social indicators that may correspond with low levels of technology access or skill, may mean that computer usage or skill among Louisiana students, or students in any state, is not equivalent to computer skills in the national population," it says.

The letter was first reported by Chalkbeat, which calls itself a non-profit news organization.

White said he needs assurances that NAEP results will reflect math and reading skills, not evaluations of computer know how.

The superintendent asked Carr for a wide range of information, including the average mean score of students who took the test on paper compared to tablets at the state and national level in each grade, subject and subgroup.

Subgroups divide results by race, family wealth and other factors.

White said Friday he has not gotten a written reply from Carr.

About 5,400 fourth- and eighth-graders took the test in January 2017.

Louisiana is one of 11 states where students had not taken digital exams previously.

Eighth-graders took LEAP exams online for the first time in May 2017.

White said there are no plans to quiz fourth-graders on state assessments using computers.

He said in response to a question that the only way to know if first-time computer exams caused Louisiana scores to drop is to compare trends from 2015 to 2017 with paper to paper with students who moved from paper to computer.

About 500 Louisiana students were quizzed on paper in 2017.

Officials of the state Department of Education released a study by the John Hopkins School of Education that raised concerns similar to White's on the NAEP exams.

"If students with weaker computer skills tended to perform worse than other groups on the computerized 2017 NAEP, then states that have a higher percentage of students whose computer skills are weak would show lower scores in 2017 than in 2015," according to an analysis by the John Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.