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Published in Print: March 7, 2001, as South Dakota Aims To Put Online Assessment to the Test

South Dakota Aims To Put Online Assessment to the Test

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Legislators in South Dakota approved a plan last week requiring students to take a series of tests linked directly to the state's recently developed academic standards. And in a pioneering move, state education officials plan to implement the new mandate through assessments administered exclusively over the Internet.

If Republican Gov. William J. Janklow signs the measure, as he is expected to do, South Dakota would be poised to become the first state to give its tests solely online. The exams would start in the spring of next year, under a bill given final approval last week by the House of Representatives.

State school leaders around the nation have become increasingly interested in the prospect of administering tests online. Plans are under way in Virginia to start giving the state's Standards of Learning exams to all high school students via the Internet in the spring of 2003. In Oregon, 17 high schools and 14 elementary schools were chosen last month to begin a pilot program of online testing.

"A number of states are looking into it, and a number of states are watching Virginia, Oregon, and South Dakota," said Wayne H. Martin, the director of the state education assessment center at the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington.

Trial Under Way

In South Dakota, pilot tests of the computer-testing program involving 10,000 students have been under way for a year, and the exams being used in that trial would become the prototypes for the statewide system. The state department of education has included $500,000 in its proposed budget for fiscal 2002 to cover the cost of the online testing for the coming year.

Because every classroom in South Dakota is wired with a high-speed connection to the Internet, the infrastructure for the testing program is in place.

"We've spent a lot of money and energy getting wired," said Sen. Dan Sutton, a Democrat who sponsored the bill establishing the new state assessment system. The bill was approved in the House by a vote of 66-3 on Feb. 28, after having cleared the Senate 31-1 earlier in the month.

Currently, South Dakota students take the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition in grades 2, 4, and 8 and the Stanford Writing Assessment Program-3rd Edition in grades 5 and 9.

The new tests, called the Dakota Assessment of Content Standards, would be mandatory in grades 3, 6, and 10 in mathematics, science, reading, and language arts, but could be administered on a voluntary basis in grades 3-11.

Through a mandate from the state education department, schools that receive federal Title I money would be required to administer the new tests in grades 3-11. But the state has no plans to tie performance on the tests to high school graduation or promotion to the next grade, according to Mr. Sutton.

"My goal is not to use this as a penalty," he said. "My goal is to help students grow academically and to help teachers."

'Taking the Temperature'

Last summer, South Dakota school districts were required to adopt a new set of state standards in language arts, math, science, and social studies. But many policymakers see the standards as lacking teeth because they are not the basis for the off-the-shelf exams that the state uses to assess student progress.

This legislation solves that problem, according to Ray Christensen, the state's secretary of education and cultural affairs. "We're taking the temperature on how we are doing on our content standards," he said.

South Dakota's education department contracted with Ed Vision, a computerized-testing company based in San Diego, to develop and administer the tests.

The company's assessments, which have been used in the state's pilot testing, are designed to adapt to students' ability levels. For example, if a student performs well on a set of questions, the test automatically increases the level of difficulty.

The tests give educators more information about a student's specific strengths and weaknesses than they receive from traditional paper-and-pencil tests, Mr. Christensen said.

Online testing systems can also address other problems associated with traditional tests, said Mr. Martin of the CCSSO. The logistics of shipping, conducting, and scoring such tests can be simplified when they are administered online, he suggested.

School officials in South Dakota see the planned testing system as a potentially useful accountability tool and educational resource, said Christie L. Johnson, the executive director of the School Administrators of South Dakota, which represents superintendents, principals, and other school administrators. "If it in fact works in reality as it sounds in theory, I think it can be a wonderful teaching tool," she said.

Vol. 20, Issue 25, Page 21

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