Promise, perils of new online tests

TOWNSEND, Del. – On a recent afternoon at Townsend Elementary School here, a little boy squinted at a computer screen and gripped his mouse. He was stuck. Half of the screen contained an article about rainforests. The other half was filled with questions, some multiple-choice, some not.

A student at Townsend Elementary in the Appoquinimink school district in Delaware taking a computer-based test. Photo by Sarah Garland

One question asked the boy to pick two animals that belonged in the rainforest from a list of pictures and written descriptions. Then he was supposed to drag the animals across the screen onto the rainforest background. Next, he had to move two correct descriptions of rainforest characteristics into boxes. He raised his hand.

“I don’t understand,” he whispered to his fourth-grade teacher.

“Read the directions again,” she whispered back.

Delaware is one of a handful of states that has moved all of its testing online. On a recent visit to Townsend, students were filing into the computer lab throughout the day to take tests. But if a multi-state effort to create better tests is successful, the vast majority of American schoolchildren will be taking standardized math and English tests online in three years.

In partnership
  • The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit news organization that is focused on producing in-depth education journalism. It is an independently funded unit of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Some education reformers and technology experts are hailing the move, which has the backing of the Obama administration, as a revolution. They are promising more well-rounded tests, less frequent cheating and immediate feedback for both students and teachers, as students’ answers are transmitted quickly over the Internet to states and the results are then sent back to districts.

But other educators and experts point to a host of potential problems. Shrinking school budgets could make it difficult for districts to purchase new equipment, and states that pioneered online tests have dealt with network meltdowns. Some worry that the move to online testing could take time away from learning.

The online format allows states to give standardized tests—once just a weeklong ordeal at the end of the year—as often as four times a year. It’s an opportunity that early adopters like Delaware have already embraced.

“This is so thrilling and exciting for those of us who work with schools,” said Joe Willhoft, executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two groups developing the new tests. “Not only will we have the end-of-the-year test, but we will also have tests that teachers can use throughout the year that can help students.”

44 states, D.C. adopting new online tests by 2014-15

Townsend Elementary, which is located in the Appoquinimink School District, gives students additional computer-based tests each year that teachers say are more fine-tuned than the state exams. “It used to be testing week,” said Charles Sheppard, the principal at Townsend. “Now we just test.”

“It used to be testing week. Now we just test.”
– Delaware school principal

Forty-four states and Washington, D.C., plan to adopt new tests by the 2014-15 school year under a program funded by the Obama administration. The states have divided into two groups that are sharing $330 million from a federal competition to develop different versions of the online tests, which will be tied to a set of common standards established in 2010.

But states that have already experimented with online testing, including Virginia and Wyoming, provide a cautionary tale against shifting to computer-based tests too rapidly.

A student at Brick Mill Elementary, in Delaware, reads after completing an online standardized test. Photo by Sarah Garland

Wyoming switched from paper-and-pencil to online tests in 2010, but technical problems popped up everywhere. Online testing was such a debacle that voters threw the state superintendent out of office and the state sued NCS Pearson Inc., the company hired to design and administer the test. The state went back to old-fashioned paper exams.

In Virginia, by contrast, the switch to online tests went more smoothly. Over the course of 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 cyber 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 the state groups developing the tests to create a “technology readiness tool” for districts, to help them determine whether they have enough computers, for example.

Some states planning to keep paper exams as backup

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 test-makers 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 D.C.’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 district-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 rainforest question, where 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.

“The big blowups we’ve had with cheating, it’s just not going to happen.”
– National testing official

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.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.