In Virginia, the switch to online tests went more smoothly. Over a decade, Virginia expanded online testing incrementally, starting in high school and moving down to earlier grades. The state also invested nearly $650 million in new technology.
But despite its careful rollout, in 2007, nearly 10,000 students were unable to complete online exams — administered by Pearson Educational Management — after a series of technical glitches.
Bryan Bleil, Pearson’s vice president for online and technology implementation, says the company is working with states and districts to help them make the transition to computer-based testing — ensuring they have enough Internet bandwidth, for example, to handle the online traffic during testing times.
The company stands to gain as states contract out work on test development. In January, Pearson won a $500,000 contract from state groups developing the tests to create a “technology readiness tool” for districts, to help them determine whether they have enough computers, for example.
The states in the two groups adopting online tests will launch them in a fraction of the time that Virginia took. And unlike Virginia, many don’t have money to put toward technology upgrades.
Maryland, which has administered science tests online for four years, plans for all of its tests to be taken on computers in three years. But Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, says his state has asked testmakers to keep paper-and-pencil exams as a backup. “We don’t have enough hardware,” he said.
Kayleen Irizarry, assistant superintendent for elementary and secondary education in the District’s state education office, said glitches are “always a concern.” So next year, some schools in the city may pilot low-stakes exams on computers in preparation for the city-wide launch.
Yet the test developers hope that eventually, technology in schools will improve enough to allow for more challenging and stimulating tests. In these new exams, a student might be asked to use a mouse to move the sides of a shape on screen into an isosceles triangle, highlight the main idea of a passage, or write an essay about two articles supplemented by their own online research.
In Delaware, however, the rain forest question, in which students simply click and drag their answers across the computer screen, is “as adventurous as we’ve gotten,” said Michael Stetter, the state director of accountability resources.
Even if the move to more sophisticated tests takes a while, advocates for the new online exams point to other benefits. If a roomful of students switches a wrong response to the right one on the same question — suggesting someone might be coaching them — the computer can easily flag the pattern as possible cheating.
“The big blowups we’ve had with cheating, it’s just not going to happen,” said Doug Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.
The shift to computer-based testing also corresponds with a push to make students digitally literate. And instantaneous scoring by computers will allow teachers, students and parents to see test results right away, rather than having to wait weeks or months after the school year has ended.
Don Davis, principal of Brick Mill Elementary, in Delaware’s Appoquinimink district, has mixed feelings about the tests, including whether they might widen the achievement gap for low-income students who don’t have computers at home. But, he said, “It’s better than what we used to have.”
This article was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Jill Barshay contributed to this report.