South Dakota Drops Online ‘Adaptive’ Testing

By Rhea R. Borja — January 29, 2003 5 min read
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After touting its move into adaptive online testing, South Dakota has now switched to a paper-and-pencil standardized test.

That action, which officials attribute to the demands of the new federal education law, marks the second such setback for adaptive state assessments.

Last year, Idaho altered its adaptive online testing—which adjusts the level of difficulty based on how well a student answers questions—because it didn’t comply with the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

Federal requirements could slow down the use of such sophisticated testing by states on the leading edge of technology, such as North Carolina and Oregon, said Randy Bennett, an assessment and technology expert at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.

But he stressed that South Dakota’s change in assessments was not unusual, and said that it was sensible to adapt to an ever-evolving testing environment.

“It was part of a developmental process that’s common to any significant innovation. I don’t think they failed in any way,” Mr. Bennett said last week. “The demands of the education and political system change, causing them to do something different.”

Some local administrators in the state are expressing relief, meanwhile, that they can drop a form of testing they say still has a lot of kinks.

Grade Level

This spring, the state’s 126,000 students will take the Dakota STEP., which combines the Stanford Achievement Test-10th Edition and questions aligned to the state’s reading and math standards, instead of the Dakota Assessment of Content Standards, or DACS.

That online test, which cost South Dakotans at least $500,000 to develop and administer, didn’t give enough student data under the new federal testing requirements, state officials concluded.

The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that state high-stakes tests measure 3rd through 8th grade students on grade level, something the online, adaptive DACS does not do, said Wade Pogany, the director of education services for the South Dakota education department.

Instead of asking the same questions of every test-taker, the assessment “adapts” to each student by asking harder or easier questions based on how the student answers.

The more questions a student answers correctly, the more advanced the questions become until he or she “levels” out. For example, a 3rd grader may test at the 5th grade level in reading comprehension, but at the 2nd grade level in grammar.

In contrast, the new federal requirements state that each student must be assessed as below basic, “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced” in reading and mathematics at his or her official grade level. Federal officials last week emphasized that online testing in general does not conflict with federal law.

While the DACS is a good diagnostic tool, it’s not a norm-referenced test such as the Dakota STEP, Mr. Pogany said.

Norm-referenced tests ask the same questions and the same number of questions of each student, giving administrators a simple, clear picture of how students compare with one another.

“We want each student to see the same questions,” Mr. Pogany said. “That was a major concern.”

The state signed a $3 million contract with San Antonio-based Harcourt Educational Measurement to design, develop, implement, and score the Dakota STEP test, said Mr. Pogany.

‘Fiasco From Day One’

Mr. Pogany was quick to add that the state is not abandoning the DACS. Schools can still use it.

“DACS is now a voluntary test,” he said. “We’re still very comfortable with the testing system, but hopefully [the Dakota STEP] will improve it even more.”

The new test will be taken the old-fashioned way, with a No. 2 pencil and paper, until all computer glitches, design, and logistical issues with its online version can be fixed. Mr. Pogany could not give an estimate of when the Dakota STEP would be taken online.

“We’re moving in that direction to go online, but we want to make sure all of the issues—bandwidth, speed, connectivity—are resolved,” he said.

But some local administrators, such as Pam Homan of the 19,500-student Sioux Falls district, are relieved the state is replacing the DACS.

Ms. Homan, the district’s director of assessment and technology and information services, said the adaptive online test had a host of content problems and computer troubles. She doesn’t plan to use it anymore.

“The DACS was a fiasco from day one,” she said.

For example, she said, the 3rd grade test began with algebra questions more suited to middle school students, and special education or English-as-a-second-language students who were supposed to be tested at a lower level still received the same reading passages given to their peers.

Furthermore, a student’s reading-fluency rate was unreliable, measured only by how quickly a student hit “OK” on the keyboard, according to Ms. Homan.

She is pleased that the new test will be low-tech, at least for now. While Sioux Falls is the biggest district in the state, the system doesn’t have nearly enough computers to make online testing logistically efficient, Ms. Homan said.

Elementary schools, for example, each usually have only one computer lab, and it would take five weeks for all of the 3rd through 5th graders to take the test online, according to Ms. Homan.

In contrast, it would only take five days for paper-and-pencil testing, she said.

"[Online testing] means the lab would be used constantly, and that no other pupils could use it,” Ms. Homan said. “And when you look at middle and high schools, it’s an even more serious problem.

“Unless we had a one-to-one computer to student ratio, I’m not sure we would ever be ready to administer large-scale assessments online.”

‘Minimal Use’

Superintendent Brad Meeks of the 3,800-student Aberdeen district said his students had experienced problems getting needed online connections with the DACS.

“Students would get frustrated,” he said. “When they went online, sometimes the system shut down.”

He also said that there would be “minimal use” of the DACS in his district now that the Dakota STEP is required. He finds the widely used Stanford Achievement Test, which underpins the new test, to be more reliable than the adaptive test.

Mr. Pogany said he was aware of those complaints.

In Idaho, meanwhile, officials will roll out a new version of the state achievement test this spring for grades 4, 8, and 10.

The test will have two parts. The first will be norm-referenced, while the second will ask questions that are more adaptive, giving a more diagnostic assessment of students, said Allan L. Olson, the executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Evaluation Association. That nonprofit testing organization developed and implemented both versions of Idaho’s online test.

As a result of the changes, the Idaho test will be longer. The tests for grades 2-9 will have 12 to 15 more questions, though the 10th grade test will remain the same.

Mr. Olson expects that more than 90 percent of Idaho’s 180,000 students will take the new hybrid test online.

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