This spring, Kentucky will join the growing number of states implementing computer-based testing of students. A state pilot program will offer online testing to more than 3,000 students in more than 30 high schools across Kentucky.
Select students at the schools will take 10th-grade reading or 11th-grade social studies tests on computers, while the rest of the students will continue to take pencil-and-paper tests.
Students in the pilot program will take the tests on a secure server, and their answers will be transmitted to an out-of-state contractor for grading. It’s Kentucky’s attempt to broaden the online testing that it already uses for students with learning disabilities or who have limited English skills.
Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit said the ultimate goal is to put all of the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS, online. Gov. Ernie Fletcher has said he wants to use technology to track student progress yearly.
“In general, all states are moving in this direction,” said Roger Ervin, a senior systems engineer in the department’s division of validation and research, who is also managing the pilot.
Each April, students in Rebecca Nicolas’ English class are tested to see if they meet the state’s academic expectations. But Nicolas has to wait six months to see the test results–too late to help students who have long since left her class.
“It’s frustrating,” said Nicolas, who teaches at Doss High School in Jefferson County, Ky. “We have to plan our school year and make our professional development plans and our instructional plans, and we don’t really know how our students have performed on the test.”
Education experts say using computers to administer exams offers advantages that include obtaining scores more quickly, the ability to electronically transfer test results, improved security, and potential long-term financial savings. It also helps states meet federal rules requiring parents to receive test scores before school starts, which Kentucky has struggled to achieve.
Leisha Gosling, whose daughter, Megan, is a freshman at Doss, likes the idea of getting test scores sooner and that her daughter will be using technology.
“I think it’s the way of the future,” Gosling said. “They might as well get used to it.”
Kentucky is not the only state exploring online testing. Indiana already has moved beyond the pilot stage and is administering end-of-course assessment tests in algebra I and 11th-grade English via computer. Idaho, Oregon, and Virginia are among the other states to have begun testing students online.
About 91,000 Indiana students took tests online last year, and their schools received the results within 48 hours. Indiana plans to start putting biology I and algebra II online this spring, said Michael Roach, Indiana’s end-of-course assessment coordinator.
“It has a lot of potential. It’s going to take us a while to realize all that potential,” Roach said. “It just makes a huge difference in the ways that schools can use the data.”
A study in March 2003 by the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based nonprofit group that studies education, found several states have started online testing.
Virginia has been more aggressive, already requiring all public high schools to have the capability to use online testing. About 226,000 online tests were taken by Virginia students last year.
The few studies that have examined whether students do better taking tests on computer or on paper suggest there is no difference on multiple-choice questions, but there have been mixed results on essay questions.
For all its promise, online testing is not without its problems.
Ervin said data transmission lines in the state might be insufficient, especially in rural areas, to handle the large amounts of testing data that must be transferred to contractors who grade the tests.
For districts such as Walton-Verona Independent in Boone County, Ky., the potential problems in participating in the pilot online testing were too much of a risk.
“There’s just too much at stake,” said Gene Kirchner, the district’s deputy superintendent.
Kentucky Department of Education
Southern Regional Education Board