ETS, the nonprofit group that created the SAT and a number of other standardized tests, has worked with educators, information technology experts, and other institutions to develop a new test designed to measure what it means to be literate in the digital age.
Beta testing for the new ETS exam, called the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Literacy Assessment, began on Jan. 31 and ends March 31. Aggregate score reports for colleges and universities participating in this trial will be available to school officials sometime in June. By early 2006, ETS says it will make available a high-stakes version of the exam that can be scored down to the level of individual students. ETS plans to market the test to colleges, secondary schools, and businesses that want to evaluate students’ and potential employees’ ability to navigate and evaluate internet-age information.
In 2001, seven colleges and university systems in the United States joined with ETS to form the National Higher Education Information and Communication Technology Initiative. The group helped develop what would become the test.
Officials began by establishing a definition of literacy for the 21st century that would become the basis for the examination. Twenty-first century literacy, they concluded, is "the ability to use digital technology, communications tools, and/or networks appropriately to solve information problems in order to function in an information society." According to the definition, this includes "the ability to use technology as a tool to research, organize, evaluate, and communicate information." It also requires students to understand the "ethical [and] legal issues surrounding the access and use of information."
According to ETS, the web-based exam is "a testing program that measures postsecondary students’ ability to define, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, create, and communicate information in a technological environment." ETS notes that secondary schools have expressed interest in the exam, too.
"The market didn’t need one more multiple-choice test, and it didn’t need another test that proves you know how to use Microsoft Word, et cetera," said Tom Ewing, director of external communications for ETS. "Educators needed to determine that their students had the ability to manage and process information through technology, interpret, then communicate it in way that is meaningful and accurate."
Until now, a primary focus for educational institutions has been closing the "digital divide," or ensuring that all students have access to computers and other technology tools. But "now we have a proficiency divide between those who can meaningfully use [technology] and those who cannot," Ewing said. "This test is designed to evaluate that divide" and help close it.
The exam presents the test-taker with a challenge and gives him or her the resources to investigate, Ewing said. The exam unfolds over two hours, during which time the test-taker is asked to carry out a series of 16 simulated tasks. For instance, the test-taker might be asked to perform an advanced search based on the need to find certain information. He or she might then be asked to use that information to put together a graph or compose an eMail message that summarizes the results of the research and draws subsequent conclusions from the data.
The test is "the first of its kind," said Barbara O’Connor, a communications studies professor at California State University, Sacramento, one of the institutions that took part in the development of the exam. "Our intent [at CSU] was to see if technology is a good tool for developing and testing cognitive skills."
Lorie Roth, a CSU-Sacramento librarian also involved in the development of the test, had this to say: "What’s so marketable about the ICT Literary Assessment is the creativity in its design. It does seem to assess different kinds of skills, across the disciplines, as well as real-life skills."
She added, "If you get the right answer, it measures your process. Even if you get the wrong answer, [administrators] get the right answer. We look at the process used to reach that answer. That’s revolutionary in testing, as far as I know."
Marjorie Bynum, vice president of workforce development for the Information Technology Association of America, also involved in the test’s development, said assessments like ETS’s latest exam will only increase in value.
"These kinds of logical reasoning tests speak to employability skills," Bynum said. "Increasingly, we’re looking at the growing importance of non-technical skillswhat we call employability skills. You can get those hard technical skills in the classroom, but in many cases you can’t teach these employability skills: good project management skills, how to get along well with others, et cetera."
The exam could prove useful for K-12 schools, too. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has called for higher accountability across the board in K-12 schools, including "[improved quality] and consistency of teacher education through measurement [and] accountability." It also calls for demonstrable proficiency in technology by all students before the end of the eighth grade.
One vocal critic of this brand of testing has been Stanley Wilder, associate dean of the River Campus libraries at the University of Rochester. "For me, it really doesn’t make sense to talk about information-seeking skills outside the context of a discipline," he said. "I’m thinking of higher [education], but I think it is possible to apply [this critique] to all disciplines. To pull information-seeking skills apart from the assignment that is at hand, it makes them meaningless."
Responded Roth of CSU: "I think most people would agree with [Wilder] that it is important to develop these skills inside academic disciplines. Technology needs to be more widely [integrated] throughout the university. It has to be integrated across the curriculum, just like writing needed to be integrated across the curriculum a few years ago. Universities took measures to do so."
Another aspect of the test that concerns Wilder is that it "had elements in it that seemed to be at least 10 years out of date," he said. "You go through the test and see that [it addresses] Boolean searching. That is a library-land concept that had some currency 10 or 12 years ago. Modern search engines don’t do that at all. It makes me cringe that we are testing for those kinds of things that are so desperately out of date."
"I think the tests will be updated over time," Roth said. "This first effort is maybe not cutting-edge, but most public universities don’t have [cutting-edge technologies]." She added that the use of technologies she has seen demonstrated in the overall test is "just a miniscule piece of the whole package."
ETS plans to offer the exam for $25 per test-taker.