We're on Our Way in Moving from the Pencil to Personal Technology for Testing – Online Assessment in the United States


Almost everyone remembers taking an exam on paper, filling in your multiple-choice answer selection in the oval bubbles with a No. 2 pencil. Ah, the good old days. Before the widespread availability of personal technology we did most of our learning (and teaching) with the most advanced technologies available – paper and pencil. While definitely tried and true, paper and pencil don't enable the level of adaptation to the learning needs and abilities of students that can be unlocked with the technology that's available to us today. Students today are experiencing digital learning and also the digitization of educational assessments.

Over the past four years, we have seen a dramatic increase in technology spending for teaching, learning, and assessment. Good, bad, or indifferent, online educational assessments are driving much of the educational technology in our classrooms. The tests themselves are an evolutionary step forward for students, teachers and school districts. The test questions can adapt to the student's performance against previous questions offering more or less challenge to tap into a student's depth of knowledge. Online assessments also feature rich media, animations and simulations that are interactive for students to demonstrate applied knowledge versus just answering simple multiple-choice questions.

While the testing medium has changed, and the content is enhanced, the process still requires that testing materials have a secure chain-of-custody from beginning to end. But because schools have adopted a mix of consumer-grade and enterprise-grade technologies, many face two primary challenges: (1) delivering secure, online assessments and (2) obtaining low-costs devices so to facilitate the assessments.

Delivering secure, online assessments

Windows devices, MacBooks, iPads, Chromebooks, Android tablets, Linux devices and virtual machines have all been brought into the mix to deliver secure online assessments. But regardless of device, educators face the challenge of building the test delivery system and implementing the exam on locked-down devices that were created to be open for consumer-use scenarios versus online assessments.

All of the major operating system companies and device manufacturers have taken measures to bolster the ability to secure devices for online assessments. The two largest testing consortia in the U.S.-Partnership for Advancing Readiness for College and Career and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia have taken steps to ensure that the security of these assessments can't be breached deliberately or inadvertently. Breaches can invalidate the test submission or allow students to cheat by remotely accessing the test. As a result, I am confident that today we can conduct online assessments securely and economically.

Obtaining low-cost devices

The other main challenge schools face is purchasing devices that are within their budgets. Before a student can take an online test, she will first need a capable device. While there are many devices at a variety of price points, they are not all equally ready for online assessment. Add the fact that online assessments typically only last for approximately five days of the 180-day school year and that students need to use the device for other learning, so the devices serve dual and potentially conflicting purposes. In our view, the device must meet the requirements for secure, online assessments and be equally suited for the teaching and learning that precedes and comes after assessments.

The Microsoft K-12 Education Advisory Group, consisting of school leaders from around the U.S., has shared feedback that students also have expectations of the devices they use for assessments. For example, students expect when they touch the screen to make a selection, that their testing device actually has a touchscreen; students who are familiar with using a mouse and keyboard want those peripherals available; and one in five students require assistive technologies for learning and assessments. These students have devices that they have relied upon for years. They need them to just work, no matter the testing environment. In a nutshell, students and teachers have high expectations for a low-cost device.

In February, Microsoft stood with President Obama to launch the ConnectED Initiative, which is jump-starting learning technology across our nation's K-12 schools. Since then, the education technology market has seen wave after wave of highly capable, low-cost Windows devices for education. As the cost of a device dropped below that of a set of textbooks (which usually costs between $400 and 700/per pupil/per annum,) schools have been increasing spending in preparation for the spring 2015 assessment window. Today, there are many great devices that can be purchased for less than a set of textbooks, and the price of Windows devices continue to fall.

In fact, we are starting to see the single unit price of a Windows device reach the volume purchase price of just a year ago. This means that families now have purchasing parity with the institutions their child attends. In a household of three or more children, buying any mobile device for every child can become expensive without some support. But with Windows device options that cost the same or less than a graphic calculator or a set of textbooks they've become significantly more affordable.

Why does the price of the device for families matter at all?

Until now, institutions needed to own and manage the devices that were used for instruction and assessment. As a result, growth has been slow in getting enough devices for each of the 50 million students in our public schools today. Now, if school districts want to pursue a Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) approach to teaching and learning with technology, they need the devices to be affordable and secure for assessments.

Historically, BYOD meant schools and students could not use a family-owned device for secure, online assessments. If the device was not managed by the institution, how could they ensure it was secure before and throughout the duration of the assessment? Moreover, how could you return that device control back to the student immediately at the end of the assessment?

Solving this problem required some breakthrough thinking and creative questions between Microsoft, our partners AssistX, Pearson Education and the American Institutes for Research (AIR). As a result of these organizations working together, today there is a secure way for devices to be used for any assessment scenario – no matter if the devices are supplied by the school or brought to school by the student.

As the sun sets on the No. 2 pencil and paper testing methods, we've seen great progress in making online assessments secure and available for all. There's more work to be done to keep up with the new innovations hitting the classroom every day, so this is definitely a journey. But right now I'm confident that the necessary steps are in progress to make online assessments a practical and mainstream part of learning.

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