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Open your test booklets: why standardized testing is still a pencil-and-paper event. (21st century assessment).

The bubble sheet is like the armadillo. While the evolution of school technology transforms the way kids learn and teachers teach, the bubble sheet--that avatar of the standardized test, that bane of sloppy handwriters everywhere--still plods along, a stubbornly tough throwback to the eons BC (before computers).

The extinction of the bubble sheet seemed like a sure bet when school technology began taking off in the 1980s. It was hard to imagine that schools' ever-increasing computing power wouldn't mean faster, more flexible testing with faster, more accurate results. It would only be a matter of time before the big testing companies--the McGraw-Hill/CBTs and Harcourt Educational Measurements of the world--went electronic.

WE SCAN DON'T WE? But the bubble sheet lives on, along with the trusty #2 pencil and the months-long lag between the test and the results that can mean having to repeat eighth grade or--if you're a superintendent--pack your bags. The most radical innovation so far has been the scanning machine that ultimately converts all those pencil blotches into electronic data after testing day is through.

Why has standardized testing proven so resistant to technology? I he answers can be found at every link of the testing chain. Until recently, few schools have had enough technology to allow every kid access at test time. Security is a huge concern: if paper tests kept under lock and key can be copied or altered, imagine what could happen to electronic ones!

OVERWHELMED BEHIND THE CURVE On the other side of the equation, the test providers have much in common with their close cousins, the textbook publishers. While the technology involved in producing the tests has become quite advanced--with sophisticated development, analysis and banking of test items--the buck stops at the printing press.

For at least the past five years, the test publishers had their hands full keeping up with both customer demand and demanding customers. More states and districts caught the testing bug and began demanding more complex tests, with lots of written passages and performance-style exercises, aligned with our particular standards, thank you very much.

And pity the poor test publisher (pretty much all of them, at this point) who flubbed a count and mistakenly marked thousands of kids as sub par, performance wise. While a more fully automated testing system could ultimately help ease some of those problems, developing such a system would cost time and customer tolerance the testing providers just don't have.

And now, with the Bush Push on testing, multiply those challenges by every state and every grade.

BUT PICTURE THIS ... What would happen if the entire testing enterprise suddenly embraced technology? Imagine students being able to take tests the way they work: with mouse clicks and menus, not bubbles and blanks. Imagine, as a school administrator, knowing your students' scores in a matter of days rather than weeks or months. Then imagine using these tests in more flexible ways, ways that guide instruction rather than lead it by the nose. Imagine implementing shorter tests several times a year, and focusing your teachers on addressing students' weaknesses while the students are still in their classes. Imagine being able to order up a test focusing on specific skills and getting it delivered the next day. Just imagine.

The test preparation industry can imagine those same things, and have moved far ahead of the actual test providers in integrating technology into everything they do. Companies like Edvision,, EduTest and others offer online practice exams that allow teachers and administrators to combine and recombine items at will; administer tests anytime, anywhere; and get instant results with powerful analytical tools to go with them.

Meanwhile, computer-based testing is gaining positive traction in the college entrance and professional examination arena. Along with the ever shrinking ratio of students to computer in K-12, these innovations may finally push the standardized test titans toward change.

Mickey Revenaugh,, is vice president of product planning and research at MindSurf Networks. Formerly, she helped launch the E-rate program.
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Author:Revenaugh, Mickey
Publication:District Administration
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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