Beyond the Bubble: Technology and the Future of Student Assessment

Reports & Briefs | February 13, 2009
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Students today are growing up in a world overflowing with a variety of high-tech tools, from computers and video games to increasingly sophisticated mobile devices. And unlike adults, these students don't have to adjust to the information age—it will be all they've ever known. Their schools are gradually following suit, integrating a range of technologies both in and outside of the classroom for instructional use. But there's one day a year when laptops power down and students' mobile computing devices fall silent, a day when most schools across the country revert to an era when whiteboards were blackboards, and iPhones were just a twinkle in some techie's eye—testing day.

Since the IBM Type 805 Test Scoring Machine first hit the market in 1938, fill-in-the-bubble test score sheets and scanners have remained the dominant technologies used in local, state, and national assessments. And underlying these pre-World War II technologies are approaches to testing from the same era. They rely heavily on multiple-choice question types and measure only a portion of the skills and knowledge outlined in state educational standards. They do not align well with what we know about how students learn. Nor do they tell us very much about how to help students do better. As a result, at a time when students are tested more than ever—and test results are used to make critical judgments about the performance of schools, teachers, and students—our testing methods don't serve our educational system nearly as well as they should.

States have slowly begun to adapt new technologies, such as the Internet, to student testing. Just over half the states, for instance, use computers to deliver a portion of the annual state testing programs mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). But, for the most part, these states' investments in technology have not led to fundamental changes in our approaches to testing. Mostly, these investments have simply made old approaches to assessment more efficient. Even the most technologically advanced states have done little except replace the conventional paper-based, multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests with computerized versions of the same. Overall, the types of skills tests measure, and what the test results can tell us, have remained essentially the same.

Technology, however, has the potential to do more than just make our current approach to testing more efficient. A growing number of testing and learning experts argue that technology can dramatically improve assessment—and teaching and learning. Several new research projects are demonstrating how information technology can both deepen and broaden assessment practices in elementary and secondary education, by assessing more comprehensively and by assessing new skills and concepts. All of which can strengthen both national standardized tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and classroom-based tests meant to help teachers improve their instruction.

These new technology-enabled assessments offer the potential to understand more than whether a student answered a test question right or wrong. Using multiple forms of media that allow for both visual and graphical representations, we can present complex, multi-step problems for students to solve, and we can collect detailed information about an individual student's approach to problem solving. This information may allow educators to better comprehend how students arrive at their answers and learn what those pathways reveal about students' grasp of underlying concepts, as well as to discover how they can alter their instruction to help move students forward. Most importantly, the new research projects have produced assessments that reflect what cognitive research tells us about how people learn, providing an opportunity to greatly strengthen the quality of instruction in the nation's classrooms. Other fields, such as military training and medical education, are already using technology-enabled assessment to enhance teaching and learning.

But technology alone cannot transform assessment. Fundamentally changing our approach to testing in our public education system would not be easy. Logistical and funding challenges that often impede efforts to maintain, administer, and update schools' technological infrastructure would have to be overcome. New assessment models must not erode efforts to promote high expectations for all students; nor should they disadvantage low-income schools and students with currently limited access to technology. And new approaches to assessment would have to be aligned with standards, curricula, professional development, and instruction to be successful.

Still, the convergence of powerful new computer technologies and important new developments in cognitive science hold out the prospect of a new generation of student testing that could contribute to significant improvements in teaching and learning in the nation's classrooms.

This report was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

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