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Professional Opinion

Online Assessment: Breaking away from ‘bubble sheets’

Perhaps the most crucial argument for embracing online assessments is immediacy
William Keswick is K12 science curriculum coordinator, K12 STEM coordinator and county athletic director for Talbot County Public Schools in Maryland.

In schools across the country, students are swapping their pencils and bubble sheets for computing devices and online tests.

Proponents say online assessment is the wave of the future. Opponents say teachers and students aren’t ready. Students from poverty may be at a disadvantage when taking online tests, they argue. I would counter that school should be the place that levels the playing field for those who don’t have access to technology at home.

Here in Talbot County Public Schools in Maryland, approximately 40 percent of students live at or below the poverty line. We believe the best way to help all students feel comfortable with technology is to provide plenty of access to it in their instruction and assessment. This is critical to prepare students for the Common Core assessments that will be administered online.

Also, placing technology in students’ hands prepares them for life outside of school. The simple fact is, technology is required for success in college and most careers. If our job is to make students college and career ready, using technology in instruction and assessment can only help.

Perhaps the most crucial argument for embracing online assessments is the fact of immediacy.

Previously, we used bubble sheets and scanners to process the data from tests. In the best case scenario, if a teacher administered an assessment on Monday, the bubble sheets would be transported to the district office and scanned on Tuesday, and the results would be sent back on Wednesday, just two days later.

With online assessments, feedback is nearly instantaneous. This allows teachers to more quickly identify areas that require re-teaching to support student mastery.

Of course, this depends on the use of a good assessment and data management system. There are a number of systems available, but the majority of Maryland districts use a web-based system called Performance Matters. With this system we track the current progress of individuals and groups of students, and teachers can quickly and easily access this data to inform their instruction.

In Talbot County, we jumped into online assessments nine years ago when we launched a 1-to-1 computing program at the high school level. Each department was given the flexibility to implement the computers as they saw fit.

In the science department, we began by having students take the state biology assessment online. Since then, we’ve added a variety of online tests to our science program at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Here’s what online assessments can do for your district:

Save instructional time

Since online assessments can be scored instantaneously, teachers’ time can be better spent delivering targeted instruction and interventions, re-teaching, offering enrichment, or diving into projects that promote higher-order thinking skills.

Save staff time and money

The amount of staff time required to grade tests by hand or to process answer sheets would make it impossible to increase the number of tests administered. Online assessments allow us to easily expand of our testing program without over-extending our staff. Because we no longer have to produce paper test copies for each student, we save money.

Identify district needs

At the district level, we frequently examine test data to see how we can better prepare state assessments. Using our assessment and data management system, we can filter or disaggregate data by subject, strand, subgroup, standard, program or other attributes. It would take an incredible amount of time to do this type of data analysis by hand for one test, much less every test.

Educator evaluation requirements

Like many states, Maryland’s educator evaluation system specifies that student growth measures will account for 50 percent of a teacher’s or principal’s evaluation. Part of this evaluation system also requires the use of Student Learning Objectives to gauge student growth. By administering our assessments online and making that data easily accessible, teachers and principals can track student growth throughout the year and make course corrections as needed.

Is online assessment a perfect solution? No. We know technology isn’t always reliable and sometimes the unexpected happens. But the tangible benefits far outweigh the potential drawbacks, especially when compared with paper-based solutions.

William Keswick is K12 science curriculum coordinator, K12 STEM coordinator and county athletic director for Talbot County Public Schools in Maryland.