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Ed Groups Push Schools to Embrace Online Assessments

By guest blogger Leo Doran

Despite evidence that some students perform better on paper and pencil versions, and technical difficulties in some states online testing continues to grow in K-12. In response, a constellation of education groups have released resources to help schools make the transition.

CoSN, a consortium of ed tech school officials, AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and NSBA, a national association of school board members, jointly issued a report this month touting what they argue are the "direct benefits" of online assessments.

Quicker feedback on performance, more options for disaggregating scores, the ability to incorporate more media formats, and the promise of adapting items to student responses in real time were among the advantages of testing through web-based platforms the groups cited.

The report also includes laudatory summaries of the efforts underway in the two multi-state testing consortiums, PARCC and Smarter Balanced; a rundown of the ESEA reauthorization's impact on online and non-traditional assessments; a checklist for schools seeking to become "assessment ready;" and two sketches of districts that have prioritized adoption of these tests.

The release of the report earlier this month coincided with the launch of online tools aimed at helping shepherd schools toward planning and executing a shift to online assessments.

The online tools, designed to be used by school district leaders, are divided into four parts: a self-reporting survey, survey results analysis, descriptors of readiness levels, and planning worksheets.

The tools are intended to be used in order. After officials analyze their district's preparedness for adopting online assessments in a number of criteria, including areas such as their strategic leadership, technological capacity, and instruction practices, the districts will be awarded with an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.

The tool ranks district preparedness on a scale from "just starting" to "innovating." Educators opting to use the resource can then avail themselves of a series of planning worksheets that should organize their transition toward becoming a district that "innovates" in its use of online assessments.

The main groups involved in creating the online tools, were CoSN; Education Networks of America, a Nashville-based for-profit company that offers internet services to schools and libraries; and the eLearn Institute, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that focuses on consulting and professional development for schools undertaking digital learning initiatives.

The online tools are also supported by the Learning First Alliance, a Virginia-based nonprofit partnership that includes numerous major education groups, including the AASA and the NSBA, as well as nation's largest teacher's unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

In the report, the online assessment proponents contend that despite isolated hiccups, the vast majority of online test administrations have gone smoothly. The report also speculates that student and teacher familiarity with testing procedures has improved from the first to second year of PARCC's and Smarter Balanced's widespread use, leading to better user experiences and higher test scores. 

The report authors said that states testing with Smarter Balanced in 2015-2016 saw "competency rates rise signficantly" over lackluster 2014-2015 results. Smarter Balanced also claims there was no "mode effect" for students taking their online competency based assessments versus paper and pencil versions.

Part of the report's advice to schools is that they increase their student's daily familiarity with technology; the authors argue that the lower scores by some students on some PARCC assessments is attributable to a lack of access and experience with laptops and tablets. Last January, Education Week reported that millions of students who took the first live PARCC exams tended to score better on paper than on computers. Scores on the 2015-2016 version of states that used the PARCC assessment are available here.

In the report's checklist for school districts intending to start using online assessments—which corresponds closely to the online tool's planning worksheets—nine key recommendations are highlighted:

  • Create a task force that includes members from every district department
  • Find funding sources for the initiative
  • Incorporate ed tech into daily lessons
  • Revamp professional development offerings for educators
  • Ensure that district networks and infrastructure are up to date
  • Prioritize communication among teachers, staff and administrators
  • Pay extra attention to logistical details, including any potential technical obstacles
  • Have a plan to use assessment data effectively

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