Bridging the Digital Divide: Positioning Students for Success on Online Tests

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Scantrons and number two pencils are fast becoming test-taking tools of a bygone era. Education-technology researcher Doug Levin of EdTech Strategies LLC anticipates that the 2015-16 school year will mark the first time that the majority of high stakes, mandated assessments will be delivered online. Online assessments offer many advantages over traditional paper and pencil exams including faster turnaround of scores, improved accessibility options, and enhanced item types that better assess students.

Yet, if these are better tests, why are students struggling to show what they know and can do?

Last week, EdWeek revealed that students who took the 2014-15 Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam with paper and pencil scored higher, on average, than students who took the exam on computers. According to one PARCC state and one prominent school district, students taking the exam offline had a “substantial” advantage.

In Illinois, state officials discovered a state-wide discrepancy:

“...the Illinois state board of education found that 43 percent of students there who took the PARCC English/language arts exam on paper scored proficient or above, compared with 36 percent of students who took the exam online.“

Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) found similar results:

“Among 7th graders, ...the percentage of students scoring proficient on the ELA test was 35 points lower among those who took the test online than among those who took the test on paper.”

Upon further analysis of their district results, BCPS discovered that within equivalent demographic and academic backgrounds, middle schoolers scored almost 14 points lower on the PARCC ELA exam when taken online.

An Emerging Digital Use Divide

One can easily imagine how students could underperform on an online assessment. In the EdWeek article, PARCC Chief of Assessment Jeffrey Nellhaus, acknowledges, “There is some evidence that, in part, the [score] differences we’re seeing may be explained by students’ familiarity with the computer-delivery system.” Students unfamiliar with the PARCC platform may be unable to take advantages of interface functionality including the ability to bookmark questions for review, highlight text, or navigate screens split between reading passages and questions. Worse, students lacking basic computer skills such as keyboarding or using a mouse would be even further disadvantaged.

Needless to say, the score differences by delivery type undermine the validity of the PARCC results, drawing an already embattled PARCC into closer scrutiny.

However, from other state-mandated tests to Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments, students are completing more and more exams on computers; Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced and PARCC tests make up just a portion. Even as Common Core aligned assessments come under increased pressure, administering assessments online is unlikely to go away.

So how do we help position students for success?

At first glance, the advantage for students taking traditional paper and pencil exams highlighted in the 2014-15 PARCC results seems at odds with other research that is beginning to show that students who use technology in the process of learning outperform their peers without access to technology:

  • On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) writing tests, 8th and 12th grade students who frequently used computers in the writing process scored higher than their counterparts who never or rarely did so.

  • The Making Learning Mobile study observed the effects of tablets at an underprivileged elementary school in Chicago. Over a three year period, the study identified a concrete connection between tablet use and online assessment results, “...the students at Falconer Elementary with tablets scored better on standardized tests than other fifth graders in the Chicago public school district and scored higher than the fifth graders without tablets at Falconer Elementary School.”

Both these studies indicate that positioning students for success is about more than just providing access to technology. The Making Learning Mobile study noted that progress was really made in the third year, after students had become familiar with the tablets and teachers had time to process professional development and fully integrate the new technology into day-to-day learning activities.

Bridging the Digital Use Divide

The digital use divide clearly has the potential to exacerbate achievement gaps in the era of online testing. Since it appears that online assessment is here to stay, there are a number of steps schools must take to bridge this divide:

  1. The first step is to give students appropriate access to devices so they are familiar with the medium of testing. Cycling students through a computer lab once or twice a week to learn keyboarding or take sample online assessments is no longer enough. When computers are more than a novelty, students develop a basic comfort level with technology, so that their computer skills don’t impede their test-taking. Online tests should be assessing what students know and can do, not their level of computer proficiency.
  2. The next, more difficult step, is to empower students and teachers to use devices frequently in natural ways to improve learning. If students are expected to read, write, and do math on computers during testing, similar digital activities should be integrated into the classroom. When students read about current events on Newsela, write collaboratively with peers on Google Docs, or solve math problems while explaining their thinking with Explain Everything, they are doing more than preparing for a test, they are learning. However, making such a digital shift is complex, requiring a community-wide vision, sustained professional development, and supportive leadership.

To me, it’s unfortunate that high stakes, mandated tests are becoming a driving force behind integrating technology into the classroom. High stakes tests eat up up valuable learning time, create unnecessary high pressure environments for students (and teachers), and aren’t able to inform daily instructional decisions like in-class formative assessments can.

But I’m convinced that all students do deserve a 21st century learning experience, one that uses technology to enhance teaching and learning and prepares them for the future. Maybe the move towards online testing can be the incentive to create a more equitable digital learning experience across our country’s school districts.

This blog was originally posted to the Clarity Innovations, Inc Blog