MANHATTAN — Bubble sheets and No. 2 pencils could soon be a thing of the past.
Elementary school students in New York City will soon take the state's high-stakes Common Core exams on computers rather than paper, and some schools have already started preparing kids as young as 4 years old for the shift.
The state's Department of Education expects to phase in the computer-based tests over the next several years, starting as early as the 2015-16 school year, officials said.
"The question is not if there will be computer-based testing, but when and how," Education Commissioner John King recently said.
Some principals are taking proactive steps to prepare students for the new tests, which are given annually to third-through-eighth-graders. At Chelsea's P.S. 33, for instance, the school has been buying more computers, working with kids on keyboard skills as early as pre-K and asking parents to help their children at home.
"We're preparing children for online assessments down the road," P.S. 33 Principal Linore Lindy said. "But it's also in preparation for everything in life."
However, some education experts worry that moving tests online might widen the existing digital divide between those who have access to technology from birth and those who do not.
In addition to city schools having the right equipment to handle the changes, the city must also work to beef up families' technology skills in the communities that need it most, experts said.
"Much of what kids learn in how they use computers happens outside of school," said Susan Neuman, a professor in the Teaching and Learning Department at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.
"There's a perception that, 'Gee, everyone in the world has these things.' They don't.
"There needs to be a much more targeted strategy recognizing there is still tremendous unequal access."
Kids who are struggling with other basic skills, like learning to read, are hit with a double whammy if they are also trying to learn how to use computers at the same time, leading to poor results in both areas, she said.
Many tests have been moving online. Exams to get into graduate school have been given on computers for more than a decade. A redesigned SAT will be given to college hopefuls on paper and computer starting in 2016.
A new test for entrance to private schools is being given on an iPad — but that will likely be given to a small group of 4-year-olds and arguably many of them will have been exposed to those devices already.
The new computerized Common Core, in contrast, will be given to tens of thousands of New York City kids who are as young as 8 years old.
"You need professional development for the teachers so they can train the students," said Brooklyn College education professor Sharon O’Connor-Petruso. "You still have teachers who are not tech-savvy. If the teachers aren't tech-savvy, how are the students going to be?"
Schools also need to make sure they have enough computers and need to increase their bandwidth and check their operating systems, O’Connor-Petruso advised.
Many schools have old Microsoft operating systems that the company no longer supports, she said.
"It opens up schools to security risks if [Microsoft] is no longer supporting and monitoring the system," she said.
Testing is moving online as the New York State Education Department increases its efforts around "technology-enhanced" and "innovative" learning, NYSED spokesman Jonathan Burman said.
"We must also increase our efforts around how we assess our students in ways that fully leverage today's technology," he said.
The city's Department of Education is paying close attention to the new mandates, addressing infrastructure and bandwidth capacity needs, a spokeswoman said. The de Blasio administration announced in May a $650 million investment in technology for city schools over the next five years.
"Any move to assessments online will require a transition of several years for all New York City schools to become technology ready," DOE spokeswoman Devora Kaye said.
At P.S. 33, also known as Chelsea Prep, students in pre-K are using keyboards to learn the alphabet, said Lindy, the school's principal.
She wrote a letter to parents last month letting them know that the school has been purchasing laptops "in anticipation of online testing" and that she compiled a list of free Internet sites to help kids practice keyboarding at home.
"I hope that you can help us assist your child in developing and building up their keyboarding skills," Lindy wrote.
Rebekah Metz, a parent of a fifth-grader in the school's G&T program, appreciates the school's focus on technology. Kids at P.S. 33 participate in robotics competitions, have access to e-readers, use the Internet for research and learn how a bike can power a blender to make a smoothie.
"They are bringing together pragmatic skills, whether its artistic skills or reading, writing and arithmetic and the technology," she said, noting that the school — where roughly half the students get free lunch — uses grants and parent fundraising to support the programs.
O’Connor-Petruso, the Brooklyn College professor, said the computer-based tests are an important part of the new, tougher Common Core curriculum.
"I know people are having a heart attack over the Common Core learning standards," said O’Connor-Petruso, the Brooklyn College professor. "But you have to be ready for the global marketplace, which is the information age, and knowing these tools is part of that."