Assessment

More Students to Take SAT Online

By Catherine Gewertz — August 16, 2017 | Corrected: August 16, 2017 4 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this story described the PSAT 8/9 incorrectly. It is for 8th and 9th grade students.

The College Board announced Wednesday that it will expand the availability of a digital version of the SAT this school year.

The company will give a practice version of the SAT online in some school districts in December, and then administer a fully operational, digital version of the SAT—and the PSAT 8/9—to more students in the spring of 2018, said Cyndie Schmeiser, a special assistant to company CEO David Coleman.

College Board officials couldn’t provide an estimate of the number of students who will have access to the online SAT this year, saying only that they anticipate a “slight increase” in participation in 2017-18, and additional increases in the next few years.

Last fall and spring, more than 5,000 students in 17 school districts took the SAT online, spokesman Zach Goldberg said. Another 5,000 students took the online version of the PSAT 8/9, he said.

Next spring’s digital tests will take place within the College Board’s “school day” testing program, which serves the 10 states, and about 250 school districts, that give the SAT or PSAT to all of their students.

The 2017-18 expansion of digital SAT and PSAT testing will be conducted on a platform designed by the American Institutes for Research, which powers a number of state-mandated testing programs.

Trend Toward Digital

The College Board’s announcement comes as assessments increasingly move onto computer screens from pencil and paper. The PARCC and Smarter Balanced exams are required in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and nearly all students take them online. The two national language-proficiency tests for English-learners, designed by the WIDA and ELPA21 consortia, are given online. And as of this year, all tests in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, are now digital, said spokesman Stephaan Harris.

The College Board’s main rival, ACT Inc., has been offering a digital version of its college-admissions test for three years in all 16 states and 1,100 districts that require students to take the ACT, said company spokesman Ed Colby. In 2016-17, 82,000 of the 1 million students who took the ACT through those programs took it online, he said.

Both the College Board and ACT said they’re not yet sure if they will offer a digital version of their college-admissions exams in their national programs. In those programs, students sign up for the test on their own, and typically take it on weekends. But Colby said that ACT testing abroad will be all-digital starting in the fall of 2018.

By making an online version of the SAT widely available, the College Board hopes to supply something that customers with state-, district- or schoolwide contracts have asked for, Schmeiser said. An online option can make it easier to provide accommodations for students with special needs, and might eventually “shorten the turnaround time” for getting scores back, she said.

Paper-and-Pencil Options

Most online tests are still available in paper-and-pencil versions, for students who need that option, and districts or schools that lack the technological firepower for large-scale online testing. The digital SAT will be no different; Schmeiser said there are no plans to do away with the paper version.

Computer-based testing, however, has come with a unique set of problems.

Technology glitches have brought state testing to a halt in some places in recent years. And Education Week found a pattern of students performing better on the paper-and-pencil version of the PARCC test than on the computer version. Scores on some online tests can also be influenced by the type of device students take them on: tablets, desktops, or laptops.

Schmeiser said the College Board has been studying such “mode effects” as it developed the online SAT, and will continue to do so, but it doesn’t see any signs of a problem.

“When we offer the SAT—on paper or digital—student scores will be comparable irrespective of the mode or the way they took it,” she said.

Years of developing digital versions of other College Board tests, such as Accuplacer, which colleges use to determine course placement, and CLEP, which is used to award college credit, have informed this latest round of work on the SAT and the PSAT, Schmeiser said.

Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of CoSN, which represents chief technology officers in school districts, said most of his members will welcome the chance to have their students take a digital SAT.

“Students would prefer to take tests online,” he said. “They live in a digital world.”

But CoSN cautions districts to make sure they are fully prepared for online testing before they venture into it. The organization encourages them to use its suite of free online self-assessment tools to gauge their readiness for digital assessments.

Districts must have adequate security and technology systems to support the tests, must be able to provide good training for staff members, and must make sure—well before testing day—that students are familiar with the devices they’re taking the tests on, Krueger said.

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