All Virginia students will have to log on to a computer to take this year’s Standards of Learning tests, making Virginia one of the only states to wholly abandon the nearly ubiquitous paper-and-pencil bubble sheets.
With spring testing in reading and math underway in many schools this week, the move to electronic tests means that Virginia, one of the few states that did not adopt national academic standards, has become a model for the dozens of states that did. Those states are scrambling to meet a fast-approaching deadline to implement corresponding online tests. It took more than a decade of school technology investments and upgrades for Virginia to get to this point.
How other states will be able to rapidly upgrade computers and Internet access in a slow economy is “the $64,000 question,” said Douglas A. Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “Probably add a few more zeros there,” he said.
As of June 2011, 33 states were administering some online tests, but it was usually on a small scale, according to the latest survey by the national association. Those that signed on to national standards known as the Common Core — including 45 states and the District — are scheduled to move to online testing in reading and math by 2014-15.
Advocates say online tests can offer faster results, more complex questions and fewer opportunities for test tampering. But the new tests, under development by two consortia of states with $330 million in federal funding, pose a massive technology challenge for school districts.
They also are shining a spotlight on the nagging issue of inequity. Some schools do not have access to high-speed Internet.
The recent rush to online testing has led to a spate of glitches and blips that many say are a harbinger of greater problems to come. New online tests administered this spring in Oklahoma, Minnesota, Indiana and Kentucky were interrupted by widespread technical problems and slow loading times. Many students had to start over.
Outsize technical hurdles are one reason leaders in some states are looking to slow implementation of the national standards, which governors nationwide heralded just two years ago as a critical strategy to ensure the nation’s international competitiveness. Teachers’ and principals’ evaluations are increasingly tied to results, but leading educators are calling for a moratorium on repercussions from the tests during the transition.
Officials from Maryland and the District, both aligned to the national standards, said this week that they are on track to roll out full-scale online testing in 2014-15. But so far, the District has administered the DC CAS health assessment online in only 14 schools. In Maryland, science tests have been administered online for about five years, but no other computer-based tests are given statewide.
Virginia education officials never signed on to the national standards, in part because they said it would be too disruptive to upend instruction and tests. They did update the state’s learning standards, though, with the national standards as a guide.
Virginia introduced more challenging math tests last year, leading to a significant drop in scores. And this year the state is administering updated reading, science and writing tests. The tests take advantage of the online format and move beyond multiple-choice questions to tap higher-order thinking skills.
The push for online testing in Virginia dates to 2000 and corresponds to a larger push to expand the use of technology in schools.
To help fund technology upgrades, the General Assembly dedicated nearly $60 million to school districts every year. The state contracted with Pearson, an education publishing and assessment company, to develop the online tests.
By 2007, school districts administered 1.5 million online tests — 54 percent of all tests statewide. By last year, Virginia gave 2.7 million tests online, 94 percent of the total.
Loudoun and Prince William counties were administering all their tests online by last school year. Alexandria and Fairfax County are finishing their roll-out to elementary schools this spring. A small number of special-education students will still be able to take the paper test.
Even with more than a decade to make the change, there were hurdles, said Sarah Susbury, the state’s director of test administration, scoring and reporting. She remembers software glitches and server malfunctions. Once, a school’s fiber-optic cables were cut during construction work.
In 2007, nearly 10,000 students, including many in Northern Virginia, had to restart their tests because of interruptions.
School districts have been getting better at troubleshooting, Susbury said.
Lanier Middle School in Fairfax lost power for a half-hour this week during a test, but backup battery packs kept the test going, said Kathleen Oliver, director of the office of student testing for Fairfax County.
Levin said the difficult transition is forcing school districts to wrestle with the role technology will play in the classroom.
Some schools have been “skating by on the notion that ‘this too shall pass,’ ” he said. But it’s time to decide, he said: “Are we viewing technology as a nice-to-have, or is it really part of what education looks like?”