The South Madison (Ind.) Community School District has revamped its standardized testing programs and is now gaining valuable feedback about student performance. Here’s how they have done it.

Four years ago, school district officials began working with the Northwest Education Association of Portland, Ore. (http://www.nwea.org), to develop tests that reflect student achievement on an individual basis. This has freed the district from testing students merely according to grade level.

The technology also has enabled the school and its partners to develop to analyze test score data rapidly. The district now conducts mid-year tests and even “on-demand” tests that help give administrators and teachers feedback about student progress.

In the spring of 2000, the district also conducted tests of children in grades one through eight to see if their scores on standardized tests were affected by taking electronic examinations, instead of pencil-and-paper tests. Tests scores were unaffected, and students said they preferred the online format.

Additional advantages of computerized tests include:

  • Adaptability. The district is finding that it’s possible to create adaptive tests, even for youngsters. Grading on adaptive tests is done with a weighting system that assigns higher values to more difficult questions. This effectively places all students on the same scale when overall assessments are compiled.

  • Efficiency. Obviously, online exams can be graded more quickly than other types of standardized tests. This becomes especially important if rapid turnaround is needed, such as for mid-year tests or for deciding how to place incoming students in a fast-growing school system. South Madison gives online tests to all new students soon after they register with the district, and the students’ teachers are given their scores.

  • Accountability. The strongest selling point of online exams is that they generate better information about student performance, and this helps identify a school’s or district’s strengths and weaknesses.

Teachers in South Madison respond to test results and are eager to modify in-class and homework assignments to address the needs identified by exams.

  • Individualization. Because the tests are adaptive, teachers are getting a better understanding of exactly what each student understands. More individualized instruction can be given to both high and low achievers.

The downsides of the online testing include:

  • Initial cost. Each test costs $4.25 per student. However, students can take a test more than once at no additional charge.

  • Computer accessibility. Online tests make significant demands on computer labs, which is where most tests are taken. Only districts with well-stocked test labs and good IT support personnel can realistically expect to conduct online testing.