Ed-Tech Policy

Online Testing Now More Common Than Paper and Pencil, Study Finds

By Benjamin Herold — November 09, 2015 3 min read
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By Michele Molnar. Cross-posted from the Marketplace K-12 blog.

For the first time, most state-required summative assessments in U.S. elementary and middle schools will be administered via technology rather than by paper and pencil in the 2015-16 school year, according to a report released last week by EdTech Strategies LLC, a research and consulting firm

It’s a major milestone that goes well beyond students using a mouse and keyboard to record responses to test questions. “The shift to online testing has done more for the educational technology movement than any other single initiative,” said Doug Levin, president of EdTech Strategies, who wrote Pencils Down: The Shift to Online & Computer-Based Testing. That shift has required building “an infrastructure to support digital learning in schools and ensuring that kids have sufficient access,” he said, adding that there’s still “quite a ways to go” in terms of equity of access so students are learning from educators who effectively integrate technology into their teaching.

Levin identified five reasons online testing offers “compelling advantages” over paper-and-pencil assessments. He wrote that they can better assess what students understand and how they perform; offer better accessibility for students with special needs; be administered more efficiently, and scored faster; and offer improved security and increased student motivation and engagement. By “improved security,” Levin explained that there is a decreased chance for cheating on computer-based tests. The Atlanta cheating scandal could not have happened in online assessments, he said.

At the same time, other vulnerabilities arise in online testing, as evidenced in the problems that arose earlier this year with testing disruptions or difficulties in states from Florida to Minnesota, from Nevada to Montana and Wisconsin.

“Testing companies have been fined millions of dollars, lost contracts, and [have] been embarrassed,” Levin said in an interview.

On the other hand, if schools don’t have enough technology to support the testing, “whose responsibility is it to get what they need?” he asked.

Some states take the position that it’s the local district’s responsibility to get the funding. “When there’s been insufficient planning, and insufficient resources, ... to me, this bespeaks the notion of trying to do it on the cheap,” Levin said.

Four Assessment Companies Dominate

Four testing companies—the American Institutes for Research (AIR), Educational Testing Service (ETS), Data Recognition Corp. (DRC), and Pearson—will deliver about three-quarters of the summative assessments in elementary and middle schools for the 2015-16 school year, the report said.

These companies will administer most of the tests created for the two consortia—Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC—that produced assessments to determine students’ mastery of common core state standards.

More than 10 states are launching new online tests with new vendors for 2015-16, which he said puts these states at a special risk of a technology-related issue in the administration of the tests. “In every instance where there was an issue last year, it was a new vendor with a new test,” Levin said.

“New York is probably the one to watch,” as it gears up for a major roll-out of online testing, said Levin. Questar is the new vendor there, and in Mississippi.

For the states and companies preparing for high-stakes testing next year, this is the time “to devote adequate resources to these issues,” said Levin. “This is a mission-critical service, with very little room for failure or interruption.”

And the impact will be far-ranging. The “universe” of state-mandated assessments amounts to more than 800 distinct tests—as defined by grade level and subject matter. These will be given to about 20 million students in grades 3 through 8, according to Levin’s research, with most students taking between two and four mandated summative tests each year. English language arts and math are the two most common.

Science is the subject that is most likely to be administered the old-fashioned way: pencil and paper, Levin found.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.