The Argument for Online Testing

8/30/2011 By:

Excerpted from a recently released whitepaper from Pearson entitled “Considerations for Next- Generation Assessments: A Roadmap to 2014.”

In the past, testing programs have been criticized for their distance from classroom instruction and learning. Assessment has been accused of “narrowing the curriculum” and watering down complex student learning and teacher instruction.

Regardless of the truths to these claims, technology will enable a much fuller integration of instruction with assessment, perhaps even enabling the creation of individualized learning paradigms. The use of technology will allow for the teaching, learning, and assessment of rich and complicated problem-solving activities, critical analyses, the generation and defense of evidenced- based arguments—all skills required for success in college and the workplace.

Richer and more innovative item types

Online testing, with its ability to employ technology for animations, simulations, and other advanced assessments of deeper understanding and complex reasoning skills, offers the ability to measure a fuller range of cognitive complexity. Tests can be designed with audio and video streaming that not only facilitates contextual understanding, but can increase students’ level of engagement. Audio and video streaming, complex scenarios, and access to multiple data sources also allow for linking several items together to assess multiple aspects of a construct.

Existing capabilities such as click-and-drag allow students to respond to concepts more interactively. For example, students can complete a chart by clicking and dragging icons from a menu of response options to a chart location. These features allow for a deeper assessment of students’ understanding, by incorporating grouping, ordering, and other cognitive tasks relevant to assessing thinking skills and the depth of understanding of students’ knowledge and skills.

Directly tied to these richer, more innovative item types will be the need to upgrade the bandwidth capabilities of local technology infrastructures. According to a recent report commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to collect data on the current state of broadband connectivity in U.S. schools today, only 22 percent of district respondents said that their connection speeds completely meet their current needs. This is a critical point, because the types of items and assessments being designed for 2014 will likely be much more media-rich and data-intensive.

How much additional bandwidth schools will require will depend on the number and nature of these innovative item types, but it is very likely that schools will need more bandwidth than most current online assessments require.

Another key consideration when planning for dynamic items is timing and commitment to the online testing mode: In order to provide the right equity for the entire testing population, use of these technology-based innovative items may require full participation in online testing. When only some of the student population is able to test online and make use of these items that cannot be delivered on paper, an obvious challenge to score comparability is presented.

Schools must first be able to fully transition away from paper testing, after which point the state can begin to fully realize the richer opportunity for the types of assessment items that only technology-based tests can deliver.

More efficient scoring capabilities

The robust, secure data management and delivery systems required by online testing allows faster turnaround of student score reports and assessment data. Student assessment data are delivered more quickly, can be produced and communicated digitally, and can be used formatively to help plan or adjust lessons to better engage students and meet their needs. Lan Neugent, Assistant Superintendent of the Division of Technology, Career & Adult

Education for the Virginia Department of Education, highlights the data capabilities intrinsic to online testing, stating that the ability to quickly receive data on individual students regarding their understanding of key curriculum knowledge and skills is “absolutely of paramount importance.”

Better security

Less human interaction with materials results in greater security. Districts that conduct statewide paper-and-pencil tests must account for all answer documents and used test booklets, which contain secure content, as well as various other documents and pieces of paper used in administering tests. And before district staff can return materials to the scoring partner, they must box up everything, class by class, and then drive the contents to a central location, where they will be organized, resorted, re-boxed, and shipped. It’s not unusual for large districts to have hundreds of hired staff involved in this endeavor—resulting in a significant expense and the potential for security breaches or human error.

Greater equity

To date, accommodation strategies to support special student populations have often been considered after the fact, as retrofits. As such, they can compromise the validity of test results while still not best serving student needs. Better approaches, such as those based on universal design principles, can help design assessments that are inherently flexible and test students—even English learners and students with disabilities—on intended knowledge and skills. For example, if an English learner does not recognize a word used to contextualize a math problem, one common linguistic accommodation is to allow that student to use a translation dictionary. But students are not all equally comfortable or adept using this support—especially if help is needed several times during the test—and they may instead guess at words.

With a properly designed online assessment, we can allow students to simply click on words to read or hear the accompanying definitions, possibly even translated into another language. In this way, students have access to personalized—and private— supports, and test results gain validity.

Improved efficiency

Online testing uses electronic resources to eliminate or reduce the burden, labor, and waste associated with paperand- pencil assessments, thereby lessening both labor effort and environmental costs. States with a stake in “green” and waste-reduction initiatives stand to see both reductions in paper needs—for test books, answer documents, ancillary materials, labels, and other materials—as well as in emissions and fuel required for transport of printed materials. This improved efficiency also has the potential to reduce overall delivery costs, although one important factor to consider during the transition is that delivery costs can sometimes increase temporarily, such as when both online and paper-and-pencil tests are delivered throughout the state.

Increased student engagement

Online testing provides wide opportunities for interactive experiences for students. Also, because students’ experiences are increasingly with digital media, online testing creates a more authentic, familiar, and engaging experience for students than paper-and-pencil tests. For example, students can manipulate and explore test questions, lending a more authentic experience and allowing results to reflect a deeper understanding of student knowledge and skills.

Although the transition to digital testing presents strategic and budgetary challenges, adopters have found it to be well worth the investment. It offers the potential for better security and control of data, more equitable and engaging tests, and can streamline the entire assessment program.

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