Education officials in South Dakota—a pioneer in the use of online testing measures in schools—say they will abandon the state’s online reading and math assessment program this year and instead revert back to giving the tests with pencil and paper.

The decision comes as state officials are switching to a new test designed to comply with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The state, along with Harcourt Educational Measurement—a division of educational publisher Harcourt Inc.—has developed the Dakota State Test of Education Progress (STEP) to replace the Stanford Achievement Test, 9th Edition, and the Dakota Assessment of Contest Standards (DACS), an online metric the state offered last year, said Wade Pogany, director of education services for the state education department.

This year, the students will take the new assessment in its paper form. But that doesn’t mean the state has given up on being able to test students on the computer, Pogany said.

“We’re still pursuing down the road options of any test delivery system. For right now—for accuracy—we’re … going to do pencil and paper,” he said. “Whether it’s online or pencil and paper, every student in every grade sees the same test.”

According to Nicole Kranzler, the department’s public information officer, state officials were concerned that the online version of the STEP test would be unveiled too early if given this year, and that technical glitches would be inevitable.

“We were not comfortable with the level of completeness in the online [version],” she said. In a trial run of the STEP program online, she said, some computers had a tendency to lock up, while others experienced slow processing—the result of overburdened computer infrastructures.

Because the paper version of the new test consists of the same questions as the temporarily stalled online version, Kranzler said the state should have no problem meeting the requirements set forth by NCLB under either format. That case, however, could not be made for the now-defunct DACS test because it could not be norm-referenced, or measured against a group of students taking the test.

Pam Homan, director of assessment, technology, and information services for the Sioux Falls School District, said she welcomes the temporary return of paper-based assessments. The district has had trouble scheduling all of its students in computer labs to take the online test, she said.

“We had been evaluating the impact of the online assessment from day one and had several concerns that had been expressed to the state,” said Homan. “We were looking at a great deal of havoc in our schedule and loss of instructional time.”

The district would have needed five weeks to complete the online test at some of its biggest elementary schools, which have one computer lab, she said.

The STEP exam will be given to students in grades three through eight and grade 11 between March 26 and April 18. Results will show whether students are advanced, proficient, basic, or below basic in their understanding of reading and math skills. The goal of NCLB is to move all students into the proficient or advanced categories.

Despite South Dakota’s move to temporarily shelve its online testing program, at least one other online testing pioneer has said it plans to forge ahead with computer-based assessments in the coming year.

Oregon will continue to roll out its massive Technology Enhanced Student Assessment (TESA) program—a statewide initiative that eventually will test the reading and math skills of students in all 1,200 schools across the state, said Bill Autry, associate superintendent for the state’s office of assessment and evaluation.

The program, which began in April 2001, is expected to save the state up to $25 million in printing and distributing costs over the next 10 years.

“We are still pursuing it,” Autry said. “We have a strategy of rolling it out where the schools right now can choose between online and paper-and-pencil assessments.”

His enthusiasm notwithstanding, Autry said Oregon has encountered a number of complications in the implementation of its program as well.

One such problem is scheduling. “Everybody can’t schedule testing on the same day,” he said. “It will take some time to work this out.”

There also have been cases where schools fall short of the number of computers needed for each student. But Autry said the potential for online testing to provide increased service, quicker scoring, and more accurate assessments more than makes up for the headaches associated with its implementation.

“We don’t have any problems that can’t be overcome over time,” he said. “The commitment definitely is there.” In South Dakota, reverting back to a paper-based model will require a change in state law. But any changes will be temporary.

Online testing eventually will return statewide, Kranzler said: “Rather than have it roll out and not work, we just [decided] to give it more time.”


South Dakota Department of Education and Cultural Affairs

Oregon Department of Education

Harcourt Inc.