IT Infrastructure

States Slow to Embrace Online Testing

By Katie Ash — November 17, 2008 3 min read

Although most assessment experts agree that in the future, state tests will routinely be administered by computer, progress toward that goal has been slow, expensive, and fraught with logistical challenges.

“I don’t think any state has found it easy to go to computer-based testing,” said Stuart R. Kahl, the president and chief executive officer of Measured Progress, a Dover, N.H.-based nonprofit organization that provides assessments to school districts.

Although many districts have implemented computer-based testing at the district and school levels, using computers for statewide assessments is much more difficult, Mr. Kahl said.

“Districts that buy in to local online testing tend to have success, and then they expect everything to be just as smooth for statewide testing,” he said. But heightened security concerns and the increased number of students who need to take the test make computer-delivered statewide assessments harder to carry out, he said.

One big difference between using computer-based tests at the local level and the state level is the limited testing window required for statewide assessments, Mr. Kahl pointed out.

To keep students from sharing or discussing questions on the assessment, it’s important for all students to complete the test within a very short time frame. But with such a narrow window, schools need more computers so students can take the test at the same time, and beefed-up network capacity to handle the spike in bandwidth required for the assessment applications to run smoothly.

And even if schools have the hardware and the bandwidth to support computer-based statewide assessments, it doesn’t mean they’re ready to administer the tests, Mr. Kahl said. “There’s so much more that has to happen.”

Still, the advantages of computer-based assessments—quicker feedback, better-organized data, and a much less labor-intensive administration than with paper-and-pencil tests—are encouraging states to find solutions to those obstacles.

Cost Barriers

Michael Griffith, the senior financial analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, is working with the state of Texas to come up with a cost estimate for moving its statewide assessment online.

“A lot of people get excited, and there are a lot of possibilities,” he said, “but there are a lot of costs involved and logistical problems that we’re finding with the state of Texas that run into the cost issue.”

For example, buying enough computers for all students to be able to take the test on the same day is a major expense, said Mr. Griffith. Expanding the testing window can help lower that cost, but it also decreases the level of test security and ties up computer labs for a longer amount of time, which can disrupt classes.

Another option might be for schools to administer the test at an outside location, such as a testing center, said Mr. Griffith, but whether that solution would be any more cost-effective or easier to coordinate is up for debate.

In addition, teachers who administer computer-based assessments need to be trained on how to use the system so they feel comfortable with the technology, said Mr. Griffith.

Lastly, the technology needed to run computer-based assessments is not just a one-time expense, Mr. Griffith pointed out.

“You need computers that are fairly new,” he said. “And once you get it going, you’ve got to refresh your computers once every five years, so it really has ongoing costs.”

Prospects Vary

To defray the initial cost of moving to a computer-based statewide assessment system, some states—such as Virginia—have chosen to provide state assessments via computer to a subgroup of students, while most students still take a traditional paper-and-pencil assessment.

But using a mixed model cannot reap all the benefits of a 100 percent computer-based assessment delivery, said Mr. Kahl, of Measured Progress.

“A mixed model has the added expense of delivering [the assessment] in both modes,” he said.

It also prevents states from being able to tap in to the true potential of computer-based assessments, such as incorporating interactive items and multimedia, he said.

“I think what’s happening now is some states are in the position to get started, other states are saying ‘we’re not ready,’ and there are many states that aren’t even dabbling in it,” Mr. Kahl said.

Mr. Griffith, of the ECS, agreed.

“With the amount of testing that’s being done with [the federal No Child Left Behind Act], to be able to collect and organize your data, and report it back that much quicker—that’s become very attractive for states,” he said. “But because there is a cost to get this started, I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of states moving forward with this in the next few years.”

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Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as States Slow to Embrace Online Testing

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