The age-old requirement of No. 2 pencils for school tests may soon be a thing of the past. When New York students sit for state-mandated “field tests” next spring, some schools will eschew the traditional pencil-and-paper exams that have been offered for decades and opt for tests offered on desktop computers, laptops or tablets instead. The field exams — which don’t count for anything but are used to try out questions for future state-mandated tests — will serve as an experiment of sorts as the state begins a long-awaited shift toward computer-based testing.

The state Education Department has asked each of the state’s roughly 700 school districts to volunteer at least one school to participate in the pilot program, and so far more than half have agreed to opt in, according to the department. In all, 884 schools across the state have requested computer-based field tests.

The results of the experiment will be used to fine-tune the system before schools can offer the computer-based model on tests that count next school year — though the state insists it will be up to the schools to decide whether to participate, at least for the next five years. The goal is to have all students in grades 3-8 take their state-mandated tests online by 2020.

“Computer-based testing shouldn’t be a yes-or-no question, it should be a when-and-how question,” said Robert Lowry, executive director of the state Council of School Superintendents. “At the same time, we have to proceed carefully, unlike how our state Education Department has approached a lot of things in the recent past, because there’s tremendous potential to create a colossal mess.”

The pilot program is designed to serve as something of a trial run for the 2015-16 academic year, allowing schools to experiment with the logistics and technical issues surrounding exams testing before offering it on Common Core-based exams that are used to gauge student performance.

Schools are not required to participate, nor are they required to use computers for testing on the actual standardized exams next school year. Schools would need to be equipped with computers or tablets that meet certain state requirements.

With a full-scale switch to electronic testing all but inevitable in the not-so-distant future, the state Education Department is pushing schools to give it a try and use the equipment available to them.

The state “strongly suggests that every district consider committing at least one school in the district to administer computer-based field tests in spring 2016,” Executive Deputy Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin wrote in a September memo to schools. “This will help your school and district understand the requirements of CBT (computer-based testing) and begin to plan for a full rollout of CBT in the future.”

Field exams are distributed to students in grades 3-8 and focus on math or English language arts.

But unlike state-mandated exams that count toward student performance, the field tests are delivered on a more targeted basis — each school only administers the test to one or two grade levels, rather than all of them. The state picks which schools offer the exams to which grade levels.

The rollout is meant to be slow, in large part because each school has a different amount of technological infrastructure available and different logistical challenges to deal with.

Already, preparations are underway for the upcoming round of field tests, which will be issued between May 23 and June 10 for schools who opt in to electronic exams.

School districts and technology officials have been holding weekly conference calls with the state Education Department as the rollout draws nearer and regional training sessions will be scheduled soon, according to Berlin’s memo. Practice tests will be available this winter, she wrote.

The schools offering computer-based tests will be spread across much of the state.

In the Rochester School District, between five and 10 schools will opt in, said Steve LaMorte, the district’s director of testing. He said he is working with each school to determine whether the electronic pilot program is right for them, and a definitive decision will be made by early December as to which schools will participate.

“Then we’ll have a firm grasp as to who will be doing it,” he said.

Not all districts will participate, however.

Lori Mulford, assistant superintendent for the Spackenkill Union Free School District in Poughkeepsie, said the district won’t be participating this school year, but will keep its options open.

“We will not be participating in the computer-based testing this year,” she said. “We feel that we have the infrastructure and the technology to administer the testing when it will be mandated.”

How soon will it be until electronic tests are mandated? Five years, at least.

Earlier this year, the state awarded a $44 million contract with Questar Assessment Inc. to craft its state-mandated tests, replacing London-based testing giant Pearson.

The contract includes a “district option” — not a requirement — to administer tests on computers, the state Education Department said at the time.

Ultimately, the department hopes the rise of computer testing will allow the state to publicly release more questions that appear on the exams — a frequent sticking point for parents who have criticized the state’s tests under the Common Core standards.

The state currently prints its own exams, which limits it to printing only a handful of versions of each test. Questar’s contract calls on the company to create between 22 and 28 versions of the computer tests, allowing the state to re-use fewer questions and release them publicly.

“Questar, Inc. will … provide computer based testing (CBT) platforms that will help reduce the need for standalone field tests, and more importantly, help make our assessments even better instructional tools,” Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a July statement.

JCAMPBELL1@gannett.com

Jon Campbell is a staff writer for the Gannett Albany Bureau.

At a glance

So far, about half of the state’s roughly 700 school districts have agreed to participate in the computer-based testing pilot program this academic year, according to the state Education Department. In all, 884 schools have opted in.

Implementation timeline

Winter 2015-16: Online practice tests available for students.

May 23-June 10, 2016: Computer-based field tests administered by schools that opt in.

Spring 2017: Schools have option to offer “operational exams” — grades 3-8 tests that count — on computers or tablets.

Mid-2020: Contract with Questar Inc., the state’s test maker, expires. Contract requires “district option” — not requirement — for electronic testing.