Idaho to Adopt ‘Adaptive’ Online State Testing

By Lynn Olson — January 23, 2002 5 min read
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Idaho officials planned to announce this week that they are adopting an Internet-based testing system that will enable them to measure students’ achievement over time and to provide results to pupils and teachers within 24 hours.

The new multiple-choice exams in mathematics, reading, and language arts, for students in grades 2-9, will be administered twice a year, in the fall and the spring. Students will receive their scores immediately upon finishing the assessments, while teachers will obtain class summaries within 24 hours, and schools and districts will get results within 72 hours.

“We wanted an assessment system that would provide data first and foremost to improve instruction, which in turn, would improve accountability,” said Karen McGee, the chairwoman of the state board of education and the interim director for assessment and accountability for the state education department.

Idaho joins a handful of states—including Georgia, Oregon, South Dakota, and Virginia—that either have or are moving to online testing. Idaho’s system, though, is expected to differ significantly from most of the others’. Because of the new federal education law President Bush signed this month, more states could soon follow. The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires states to administer yearly tests in reading and math to every student in grades 3-8.

Those tests must be aligned with a state’s content standards; produce diagnostic reports on individual students; and permit scores to be broken out for subgroups of students, such as by race and family income.

State-Testing Novice

Idaho chose as its testing contractor a relative newcomer to the state-testing field. Northwest Evaluation Association is a nonprofit group based in Portland, Ore., that works with more than 650 districts in 30 states to provide district-level assessments.

“They’re a well-established, well-respected outfit, with probably one of the longest track records in working with schools in the area of computer-based testing,” said Randy Bennett, an expert on online assessments with the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service.

Until now, Northwest Evaluation has never been the primary contractor for a statewide testing system. The group currently works with 44 of Idaho’s 113 districts to provide district-level assessments.

Mr. Bennett predicted that, in the long run, online testing would become inevitable. “Technology has become a key tool,” he said. “One cannot, as methods of work and learning change, continue to test by means that do not match those methods.”

But Wayne Martin, the director of the state education assessment center at the Council of Chief State School Officers, said that while some states are interested in computer-based testing, the concept raises questions. “It’s great if you can do it for every student in the state,” he said. “But if you’re trying to implement this in a phased-in manner, then you start raising some really thorny equity and, possibly, legal issues about the difference between a student taking a test in paper-and-pencil mode and those taking it via the computer.”

A Yardstick

One feature that distinguishes Northwest Evaluation Association’s assessments from most other state tests is that they are “adaptive.” That means the difficulty of test questions changes depending on how well a student is doing. A 3rd grader, for example, could answer test questions designed for students in grade 2, or even grade 6.

“It’s designed specifically to provide every child a test that is challenging from beginning to end,” said Allan L. Olson, the president and executive director of the testing company. Of those states currently administering tests online, only South Dakota uses an adaptive testing system.

Allan L. Olson

According to Mr. Olson, the company has devised a scale that allows scores to be reported consistently across grades and years. That permits educators to determine what value they are adding to a youngster’s performance from grade to grade, he said. It also makes it easier to target instruction.

“Think of it as a yardstick, where you’re measuring the child’s physical growth,” said Mr. Olson. “We have a similar scale that measures a child’s academic growth.”

But it’s not clear whether such adaptive testing will satisfy the new federal education law, or whether students in the same grade would have to take the same test to comply with that law. The concern is that if one 3rd grader takes a test at the 5th grade level, and another takes a test at the 2nd grade level, those tests may not actually be measuring all 3rd graders against the same standard. Mr. Olson called requiring the same test to be given to all students in a grade “very limiting.”

Idaho began the process of revising its testing system last April, when a 10-member selection committee, composed of business representatives and educators, held a series of meetings to find out what educators and the public wanted from a state testing system.

“We found that the school districts really wanted testing that was not only related to our standards, but something that could measure growth in students,” said Lydia G. Guerra, the project manager for standards, assessment, and accountability for the state department of education.

Northwest Evaluation will begin providing assessment services this spring, beginning with a new test for high school students. Testing in grades 2-9 will be piloted starting this fall.

Students in at least 75 percent of the state’s districts will take the tests on a computer. Districts without the needed electronic systems will use corresponding paper-and-pencil tests. All results will be reported within a week.

“We’re hoping that we will have all schools on electronic, computer- adaptive testing by spring 2003,” said Ms. Guerra.

20,000-Question Bank

The state has awarded the company $540,000 for its work this spring. A contract for roughly $3.7 million will cover the fall and spring pilot testing in grades 2-9 for the 2002-03 school year.

The nonprofit company intends to tap its bank of more than 20,000 test questions to tail its tests to Idaho’s state standards.

Because there are some content standards that cannot be measured using multiple-choice items, the state plans to continue using performance assessments in both writing and math in some grades.

Those tests, now given in grades 4 and 8, will be spread out more evenly in the future. Plans are to give the writing test in grades 5, 7, and 9, and the math test in grades 4, 6, and 8. The state also has a measure of students’ early reading progress in grades K-3.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week as Idaho to Adopt ‘Adaptive’ Online State Testing

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