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Common Core and the Rise of Online Assessment

When Michigan students eventually take the Smarter Balanced Assessment—the Common Core State Standards-based exam that the state has signed on to adopt in 2015—they'll do so not on paper, but online. According to the Detroit Free Press, the change "marks a dramatic shift occurring in education: The traditional paper-and-pencil, fill-in-the-blank exams could become as much of a relic as learning cursive and using blackboards."

About 35,000 students across the state recently participated in a pilot program in which they took social studies exams online, reports the paper. And while some schools struggled to find enough computers for testing, both students and teachers saw advantages with the online format. Kate Cermak, administration and reporting analyst at the Michigan Department of Education said, "It's gone incredibly smoothly. I have to say I am surprised. ... The schools are reporting that their students seem to be more engaged and interested in taking the online assessment."

Students reported liking that with the online format, they could skip questions or flag ones they were having trouble with, and the computer would remind them to go back and fill in answers. When taking pencil-and-paper tests, of course, students have to rely on their memory to return to questions. Students also mentioned that they liked not having to worry about filling in the bubbles properly.

But the article (and a recent conversation with a teacher from Detroit) got me wondering: How will students be able to solve complex, multi-step math problems—such as the one shown here in a preview of the Smarter Balanced test—while on the computer? How will students show their work? Will they be more tempted to guess rather than pick up a pencil and figure out the answer on paper?

Michigan teachers and others, please chime in.

UPDATE (11/27/12, 3:25pm): I had the chance to speak with Joe Willhoft, executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, today at the Excellence in Action National Summit in Washington, and I asked him these questions. He said the group is working with Microsoft Corp. to implement technology that will allow students to show their work on math problems—something like a tablet with scribe capability. He anticipates this being in place by 2016-17. Until then, though, Willhoft agreed that there are concerns about ensuring that students write out their work. A Microsoft rep who happened to be standing next to me confirmed that the scribe technology for tablets has been available for a while, but that very few schools have it so far.

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