Special Report
Assessment

Digital Advances, Common Core Fuel New Testing Approaches

By Kevin Bushweller — March 10, 2014 3 min read
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Figuring out how to use digital tools to transform testing can be a bumpy ride. It requires a willingness to invest in new technologies and the patience to experiment with novel approaches, a commitment to ongoing professional development and reliable technical support, and an openness to learn from mistakes, making quick adjustments in response.

Whatever bumpy ride this technological journey takes, experts insist that online assessments—for both high-stakes tests and classroom exams—are the undeniable wave of the future. They see online tests, and adaptive ones in particular, as a key tool for building personalized learning programs that address students’ individual strengths and weaknesses.

And with only about a year to go before students in most states are scheduled to take new, online assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards, districts are still taking stock of whether the technology they have on hand will meet their needs. Many schools are now seeing, late in the game, that the gap between what they have and what they need is troubling.

What may be worse, others remain in a “this too shall pass” state of mind, said Thomas Ryan, the chief executive officer of the eLearn Institute, a nonprofit based in Wyomissing, Pa., that works to transform education through the use of digital learning tools. “The thinking being, ‘Maybe we can play this slow and miss this one,’ ” he told Education Week.

Bandwidth Needs

A recent report by the State Educational Technology Directors Association, in Glen Burnie, Md., suggests that concerns about schools’ technological readiness for common-core testing are justified. It found that 72 percent of schools do not meet the basic Internet-bandwidth requirements of 100 kilobits per second per student set by the association—essentially the minimum of what’s required for a schoolwide 1-to-1 computing environment.

Further, a 2013 survey by the Consortium for School Networking, based in Washington, and Market Data Retrieval, an education market-research firm in Shelton, Conn., found that only 57 percent of elementary schools and 64 percent of secondary schools had wireless capability.

That lack of preparation for the common-core online tests could be a major missed opportunity for many schools, experts point out, because the digital upgrades put in place for the common core could fuel the use of technology to transform testing in other ways.

One of the potentially most powerful tools is in-class formative assessments that provide real-time feedback on what students know and understand. Some districts are already taking significant steps to experiment with how technology can improve such an assessment approach.

Having a stronger technology backbone in place could also set the stage for wider use of assistive technologies. Once seen as primarily for students with disabilities, those technologies are now merging into the broader testing world, especially as more states and districts embrace online testing. Computer-based exams provide an opportunity to allow all students to tap into accommodations that could aid comprehension and focus.

At the same time, many educators are learning important lessons about using digital games and simulations that feature embedded assessments. The rich multimedia content and interactive experiences in games and simulations provide an opportunity for deeper insights into the nuances and complexities of how students solve problems.

Even so, some experts advise schools to stay focused on integrating technology into assessments in thoughtful ways that have an impact on learning.

“We all want to avoid the gee-whiz factor,” Eva L. Baker, the director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, & Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles told Education Week. “We have to make sure there is adequate evidence these things work and are not simply the next big thing.”

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