Choosing Computing Devices for Common Assessments

By Ian Quillen — October 15, 2012 3 min read

By 2014-15, students in nearly every state and the District of Columbia are expected to be logging online for formative and summative assessments in English/language arts and mathematics as part of their states’ adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

What’s less clear is what devices they’ll be using. Desktops, laptops, netbooks, smartphones, and tablets are all being considered by states and districts. And it’s likely, experts say, that no one device for online test delivery will gain universal acceptance.

Here’s a look at the issues technology leaders are considering when they choose what devices to buy or enable for common-core assessments.


While laptop computers, and especially netbooks, continue to drop in cost, they still often run hundreds of dollars more than many smartphones and tablets.

For districts issuing devices to students, that can make smartphones and tablets a much more feasible option. Smartphones in particular are also considered better for a bring-your-own-device assessment model, in which students who own computing devices are asked to use their own, and students who don’t are provided loaners. Research has found smartphones to be the most commonly owned devices by students at all socioeconomic levels.

The BYOD model can pose challenges, though, especially in finding open assessment content, which is accessible and functional on a variety of devices and from a variety of Internet connections. But developers say they are focusing more effort in that area, in part because it is an increasingly attractive idea to districts.

“It’s customer-driven,” says Rich Patz, the vice president of research and product development at CTB/McGraw-Hill, a Monterey, Calif.-based educational assessment company that will be among those contributing material to the common assessments.


Because the assessments will be meant to measure student skills in English/language arts and mathematics, and not technological acumen, some experts say it’s important to give assessments on devices students are already familiar with so there is no negative impact on test performance related directly to technology.

“It’s certainly important, from a test-validity point of view, for students not to be encountering the technology for the first time when testing,” says Patz of CTB/McGraw-Hill. “Things like tutorials, and the opportunity to figure out things like how the online calculator works—that stuff needs to be tended to.”


What devices a district purchases may also be influenced by the need profile of its students. Districts with a higher proportion of students with learning disabilities or other special needs may be more likely to consider tablets or smartphones—devices that are generally viewed as more user-friendly.

Students with limited motor skills, however, may be better served taking assessments on devices that use keyboards for input, rather than a touch screen, because of the possible lack of precision in using a touch screen, says Mike Russell, the senior vice president of strategic development for Measured Progress, a Dover, N.H.-based assessment company.

“I think that’s a big factor that people tend to not talk about,” he says. “A lot of people tend to forget that assessment is a very precise measurement activity.”


A major consideration in what devices states and districts choose to utilize for the common-core assessments may be what kind of content is contained within the assessments themselves, as well as how exactly students are expected to interact with it.

For example, assessment items that would ask students to view and respond to a video would probably need more screen real estate than a typical smartphone would provide. Such items could also prove more challenging on tablet devices, which generally require a user to minimize a video to respond via a touch-screen keyboard.

On the other hand, smartphones and tablets often have motion-sensor technology that might allow them to be used as a physical manipulative in ways that cannot be done with laptops or netbooks.

The two consortia charged with creating the common assessments, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, have indicated that the items within the tests will require multiple methods of response and interaction in an effort to gauge not only content knowledge, but also related critical-thinking, analytical, and knowledge-application skills.

Such approaches might mean schools would be better served by investing in more versatile devices, if they can afford them, says Leslie Wilson, the chief executive officer of the Mason, Mich.-based One to One Institute, which provides advocacy and guidance for 1-to-1 computing programs.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Choosing The Right Devices


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