A belief is growing among educators and testing experts that online-learning assessments could lead to a wave of more effective and innovative ways of testing students.
Because of the interactivity, flexibility, and digital permanence of online curricula, some envision a future of interactive tests, exercises, and projects that gauge not only what students know, but also how they learn.
In public appearances highlighting the goals of the National Education Technology Plan, Karen Cator, the director of the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, has spoken of her vision of a technology-driven “Assessment 2.0” for all students. In it, traditional one-time tests would be replaced with continuous assessments woven throughout an online curriculum.
Further, the assumption that the online students whom schools are testing are connected to every resource the Web has to offer means there is a fundamental need to make virtual assessments more sophisticated.
“You have to have authentic assessments,” said Pam Birtolo, the chief learning officer for the 97,000-student Florida Virtual School, based in Orlando. “What you really want is assessments that synthesize and analyze learning, because you’re opening up cans of worms if you don’t do that. ”
But that doesn’t automatically translate into assessments that fully utilize the Internet’s potential. With pressure to fill an online platform with content, novice virtual teachers may overcompensate by working too many assessments into a course, leaving too little time for instruction, report more experienced instructors. Others may come up with great ideas that involve the collaboration and higher-order thinking that advocates for online education tout as native to their field, only to lack the time and flexibility for grading anything other than course completion.
Course Designer’s Perspective
As a course designer and instructor at the blended model Odyssey Charter High School in Las Vegas, which mixes online and face-to-face learning, and an adjunct virtual teacher at other schools, Cory Plough has seen teachers tackle both challenges. While new virtual instructors soon learn to move away from using only multiple-choice and short-answer tests, he said, they often underestimate the time and effort needed to assign, complete, and evaluate online discussions, projects, and exams.
Because the 700-student Odyssey Charter High caters to students who travel often, are extensively involved in sports or performing arts, or have special learning requirements, Mr. Plough said students can struggle with the time-management skills needed to complete a project remotely. Teachers, meanwhile, find themselves having to be far more explicit with directions for assessments than they are in a face-to-face classroom. (Students at the school spend four hours a week meeting face-to-face with teachers, and complete the rest of their coursework online.)
“They have to account for all the different problems [or misunderstandings] a student is going to run into in their heads as they’re writing their assessment,” Mr. Plough said. “The research shows it takes two times [longer] on average to prepare an online course than it does to prepare a face-to-face class. When it comes to science and math, it takes three to four times as long because of the amount of detail you need.”
It’s not that online assessments should bear no resemblance to paper-and-pencil tests. Experts say it’s still OK to use some multiple-choice and short-answer questions on online tests, as long as those questions come from a randomized test bank and aren’t just testing memorization of facts. And as the world becomes increasingly connected and digitized, some educators insist that it’s more practical to test students under the assumption that the students will be able to look up answers—right and wrong ones—in a Web search.
“They have to be able to evaluate information,” said Beth Still, both an online and face-to-face instructor with Educational Services Unit No. 13, based in Scottsbluff, Neb. “I want to see them create something when they go to Google and search for information. I want to see who can pull that information from different sources and create a project.”
Building an environment for substantial online student collaboration can also be difficult. In district- or consortium-led virtual schools, which are a growing trend, according to a report released in November by the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, finding enough students to collaborate with can be a challenge.
Ms. Still, who is leading an effort by her consortium to expand a virtual school in the Nebraska panhandle, has only three students in the principal online social studies course she teaches. The numbers are stronger, but still small, in English courses offered by the fledgling school.
Even in larger virtual schools and online courses, ensuring that substantive discussions take place and are assessed appropriately can be a challenge.
That’s what Steve Johnson, the author of a forthcoming book, Digital Tools for Teaching: 30 E-tools for Collaborating, Creating, and Publishing Across Content Areas, said he’s experienced both as an instructional technology facilitator at JN Fries Middle School in Concord, N.C., and as a student himself in online higher education.
“Whenever you’re doing an assignment, a lot of it is like a checkmark,” Mr. Johnson said of many online courses, especially those that ask for discussion posts or other online comments. “They’re not really looking for content, but just checking off that you did it.”
The reasons for that tendency vary. Some online teachers may have larger class sizes that make evaluating discussions and other content difficult. In other courses, Mr. Johnson said, teachers may shy away from more stringently evaluating online discussions because of student concern that the course is too hard. It’s a concern teachers should pay less attention to, he said.
“If you ever hear a student saying that the class is too hard, it’s partly because the class is authentic and the [teacher] is actually checking the assessments,” he said.
Variety of Approaches
But while online assessments are presenting educators with new challenges, most online educators agree that the biggest advantage of online assessment is variety. Multiple-choice tests, essay tests, discussion forums, collaborative projects, and oral exams are most effective, they point out, when used together to understand student patterns of learning. And the online environment, from their perspective, is more suited to blend all those forms of assessment.
What’s more, some educators believe the path to understanding student patterns of learning could be accelerated with the implementation of adaptive-learning technologies, in which a course constantly reshapes interactive online lessons as students show—or fail to show—mastery of concepts. The result is individualized lesson plans, with assessments of skills built in at critical points.
“Not only are we assessing if the answer is right or wrong, but we’re assessing how we got the right answer,” said Jessie Woolley-Wilson, the president of DreamBox Learning, a Bellevue, Wash.-based commercial supplier of online math lessons for grades K-3.
Ms. Woolley-Wilson, who is a board member for Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week, cautioned that assessments are not magically inherent in adaptive lessons, but rather are carefully placed by skilled course designers.
“One of the things I don’t want to happen is to equate assessment with adaptive learning,” she said. “Assessment is integrated seamlessly into adaptive learning. But assessment is not an outcome of adaptive learning.”
In a video interview on edweek.org, Florida Virtual School President and Chief Executive Officer Julie Young spoke about the potential to shape adaptive-learning courses around a student’s personal interests to help camouflage the repetition of assessment needed for a student to gain mastery of a certain skill. She said FLVS is piloting the idea for some Algebra 1 students, but it’s unclear how easily similar courses could be developed for other subjects.
“That really is a dream for us,” Ms. Young said in the interview, “and something that we are highly committed to moving forward with.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Testing Knowledge and Understanding