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Published in Print: June 13, 2001, as Testing Firms See Future Market In Online Assessment

Testing Firms See Future Market In Online Assessment

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A growing number of testing companies are poised to offer online-testing systems to deliver statewide academic assessments, but experts caution that those companies may be overestimating the demand for the computer-based exams.

Already, some of the heavy hitters in the testing industry—such as London-based NCS Pearson PLC and Yardley, Penn.-based Vantage Learning—have created online-testing systems that they hope to sell to state education departments. EdVISION Inc., based in San Diego, is also poised to capture a slice of whatever market exists in schools for online testing.

Next week, Virginia plans to name the company it has picked to deliver its state tests online.

The Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit company based in Princeton, N.J., and ACT Inc. in Iowa City, Iowa, have also developed online testing systems for college placement, graduate admissions, and professional tests and have pilot tested them with college admissions tests.

And testing experts said they expect to see more companies vying for market share as more states set up the technological infrastructure necessary to run online tests.

"We may not exactly be ready for [statewide online testing] now, but this is the way we're going to be doing this in the future," said John M. McLaughlin, the president of John McLaughlin Co. LLC in Sioux Falls, S.D., which advises investors in education-related businesses.

Mr. McLaughlin suggests that corporate interest in the online-testing market for schools is growing because of the heated debates across the country about expanding state standardized testing to more and more grades. Legislation pending in Congress, in fact, would require annual testing of students in grades 3 through 8 in mathematics and reading.

In addition, Mr. McLaughlin said, hundreds of occupations require continued evaluation, and online tests are being devised to measure the skills of people in those professions. It's natural, he said, for schools to do the same.

But even experts who work for those companies said it would be easy to develop an overly optimistic view of how quickly the online-testing market—especially as it applies to K-12 schools—will take off.

Online and computer-based testing have inspired false hopes before, said John Fremer, an ETS testing expert.

"For the past 15 or 20 years, year after year, we were saying, 'Boy, within the next five years, computer-based testing is really going to take off,'" said Mr. Fremer, who is the immediate past president of the National Council on Measurement in Education.

Still, he and others insist the situation is somewhat different now from what it was five or 10 years ago.

Like Mr. McLaughlin, Mr. Fremer said the fact that online testing has been embraced by the corporate and professional worlds has helped testing companies improve and standardize their technologies. And that has largely resolved questions about the validity of test items and concerns about the security of online tests.

Today, more than 150 companies are involved in online delivery of corporate and professional testing, Mr. Fremer estimates.

Millions of Online Tests

To be sure, some of the big testing companies already have quite a bit of experience administering online assessments, experts point out.

Vantage Learning officials, for instance, said their company administered 4 million online tests last year.

It's that kind of experience that one Oregon state education official said he was looking for.

Robert M. Olsen, the team leader for the Oregon education department's Technology Enhanced Student Assessment project, which ran a pilot study of online testing this spring, said his state chose Vantage Learning, in part, because it had already given millions of online tests. "That was one compelling reason we made the selection we did," he said. "[Vantage Learning] had done 4 million online tests—that was pretty comforting."

Scott Elliot

Scott Elliot, the chief operating officer of Vantage Learning, said the company's Oregon pilot test this spring, which involved thousands of students, proves that its technology can work in a statewide assessment in schools. That view is supported by the state, which will roll out the system to 300 schools next school year.

However, online testing is hampered by the same problems that bedevil other uses of technology, such as getting technical support at the school and district level to ensure that glitches are quickly ironed out. The Oregon test, for example, had minor technical problems, as when the system briefly slowed to a crawl, leaving students drumming their fingers waiting for diagrams to appear on their screens. ("Testing Computerized Exams," May 23, 2001.) "Technical support is very key in this endeavor," Mr. Elliot said.

Landing Big Contracts

The companies that want a piece of this market are well aware that racking up early "wins" by landing contracts for large-scale online testing, such as the contract Vantage Learning secured with Oregon, will help them lead the market as more competitors join the field.

In addition to the Oregon contract, Vantage Learning was signed up by Edison Schools Inc. to provide monthly online testing for students at the 113 public schools run by the for-profit company, beginning next school year. "Each kid will take a test every month, providing an ongoing benchmark," Mr. Elliot said.

However, Vantage Learning was not the choice of the South Dakota education department, which is also delving into online testing. It chose EdVISION, which offers an adaptive-testing system. With such a system, the difficulty of the test questions changes depending on how well a student is doing.

"We are a smaller company, and we're going to where we can become successful rather than trying to [secure contracts everywhere]," said Bill Tudor, the president and chief executive officer of EdVISION.

South Dakota officials are using the online tests to help teachers diagnose the learning deficits of their students, he said, but not for high-stakes purposes or for comparing schools.

And in Virginia—where state officials plan next week to make a final selection of a company to deliver its tests online—a handful of companies are waiting to see who the state will pick. Those companies are Vantage Learning, NCS Pearson, and BTG, which is a consortium of CTB McGraw-Hill, Oracle, other companies, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, "NCS [Pearson] has been recommended the award [by the state]," said Steve Kromer, the vice president of measurement services at NCS Pearson. He said the company is now discussing with the state the terms and conditions of the contract.

Officials at both Vantage Learning and NCS said they were having discussions with other states as well about conducting pilot tests. They would not name those states, but testing experts said Florida and Pennsylvania are also seriously considering how they might deliver their state tests online.

Conservative Approach

Testing experts like to point out that state education officials are conservative when it comes to tinkering with proven and accepted forms of standardized testing. And they said that tendency will certainly have an effect on how quickly the market grows.

What's more, although the number of online or computer-based assessment companies is growing, the field shrinks considerably when states are looking for firms that can deliver high-quality statewide exams, said Mr. Olsen of the Oregon education department. Mr. Olsen notes that only four companies responded last year to the state's request for proposals for its online-testing system.

"There are a lot of companies that are brand new to this or are pretenders" or have just done testing for online college courses, he said.

But Mr. Olsen predicted there would be significant growth. "Today, there might be five firms that have the reach and breadth and seem to have horsepower [to conduct statewide online tests]. In three years, there'll be 15, and in 10 years, there'll be 30," he said.

Vol. 20, Issue 40, Page 6

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