The shift toward online exams aligned with the Common Core standards will require much more preparation than simply making sure networks can handle the extra bandwidth constraints and that schools have enough devices for every student.

It also will require students to demonstrate certain digital literacy skills that go beyond the core curriculum, observers say. These include technology operational skills such as keyboarding and spreadsheets, as well as higher-order skills such as finding and evaluating information online.

And many observers have serious concerns about whether students will be ready to take the online exams by the 2014-15 school year.

“When you look at the Common Core standards and how students are going to be assessed, the depth of knowledge and what students will be asked to do is completely different than what has been required by high-stakes testing before,” said Nick Smith, marketing manager for Learning.com.

(Next page: Sample assessment questions, and how some schools are preparing)

In a sample question from the Smarter Balanced Assessment, students are asked to assume the role of chief of staff for a congresswoman in their state. A power company is proposing to build a nuclear plant there, and the congresswoman wants to know how she should vote. Students must search the web for information, find three credible arguments for and three against the use of nuclear power, evaluate these arguments, and write a statement either favoring or opposing the plan—using evidence to support their position.

The Common Core testing brings a “new sense of urgency” to the teaching of digital literacy skills in school, Smith said. That applies everywhere, he said, but especially in lower-income communities where students aren’t learning these skills at home.

Stuart Kahl, president of Measured Progress, which designs assessments used by states and school districts, said the Common Core testing “really brings the notion of core knowledge and 21st century skills together.” He added: “To prepare, we need more attention to [higher-order thinking] in schools.”

Schools can’t make this shift “without a variety of support,” Kahl said. For one thing, teachers need more time to prepare and collaborate on project-based lessons and activities that involve the use of technology.

Schools also can use ed-tech tools to help their students learn key 21st-century skills.

Learning.com has provided a digital literacy curriculum called EasyTech since 2000. In response to the development of the online Common Core exams, the company recently created a sequence of units within the product to address the specific skills that students will need to succeed on the exams.

These range from fundamental computer skills such as basic web browsing, keyboarding, and word processing, to more advanced skills such as creating and analyzing charts and graphs, communicating and presenting information using digital tools, and conducting online research and evaluation.

South Carolina-based TE21 provides a formative assessment builder to help schools prepare for the rigor of Common Core exams. The program, called SCORE21, provides an item bank of more than 13,000 questions—including depth-of-knowledge questions that require critical thinking skills—inside a dashboard for test building, review, delivery, and collaboration.

The product has been available in three states for about 18 months as part of a limited regional release, and now it’s available nationally.

Anne Marie Johnson, principal at Yates Mill Elementary School in Wake County, N.C., said her school has been using the product to make sure students are on track toward proficiency. She believes Yates Mill’s strong focus on higher-order thinking skills and project-based activities will serve students well when the Common Core exams roll out.

“We don’t like the ‘sit and git’ approach,” she said.