Is Online Standardized Testing the Key to Ending Cheating?

In the wake of Atlanta's massive scandal, why aren't more states copying the SAT and GRE and moving their high stakes tests online?

With 178 educators implicated in Atlanta's massive standardized test cheating scandal, the integrity of high-stakes testing is coming under scrutiny. At the heart of the scandal: The allegation that teachers, school testing coordinators and principals erased student's incorrect answers and bubbled in correct responses. Atlanta isn't alone.

In my days working in schools, many teachers told me a similar story: Students they knew couldn't read on grade level somehow scored well on the reading comprehension sections of state tests. These teachers assumed that someone had gone through the testing booklet, erased the wrong answers, and penciled in the correct ones. Erasure patterns suggest that similar activity is happening in schools from Washington, D.C. to Houston.

Why, if these tests are so critical, are we still relying on human-intervention-prone Scantron forms and number 2 pencils to administer them? Why aren't more states copying the SAT and GRE model and moving their high-stakes tests online?

Making the online switch provides plenty of safeguards against cheating. This year, for example, the Hawaii State Assessment was administered entirely online for students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10. Cara Tanimura, the director of the systems accountability office for Hawaii's public schools, told the Honolulu Star Advertiser that while cheating was rare on the paper tests, it was near impossible with the online administration.

In Hawaii's online system, a computer program tracks "when each student is logged in to take the test, how long they linger on each question and when and how they change their answers." If the online window is idle for more than 20 minutes, student responses can't be changed, and once the test is submitted online by the student, answers can't be switched before the test is scored. A teacher also can't tell the whole class to bubble in specific answers because, unlike test booklets that have the exact same set of questions in the same order, the online tests randomizes the questions given to students.

Jon Cohen, the executive vice president of American Institutes for Research, the company that runs Hawaii's test, told the Honolulu Star Advertiser: "It's a lot more difficult to cheat on an online test, especially an adaptive online test in which all the kids are looking at different items." Cohen adds that it's not impossible for cheating to happen with the online exams—a teacher could theoretically stand right next to an individual student and feed her the answers—but that's pretty unlikely, and quite different from the after-hours test doctoring parties held by educators in Atlanta.

To make this online switch happen, schools will undoubtedly have to scale up their tech infrastructures to ensure that classrooms are equipped with working computers and internet connections. But those are tech investments that need to be made anyway—I know teachers that still have to bring their personal laptops to work so their students have a computer to use for research projects. Maybe being forced to switch to online testing will come with an added bonus: Speeding up school districts' willingness to bring more tech access to classrooms.

Of course, moving tests online won't erase the crazy pressure educators are under to produce results at all costs. If a principal feels, as one in Atlanta did, that she has the right to make a teacher sit under a desk during a faculty meeting because her students didn't do well on the state test, that attitude isn't going to go away just because of a format change.

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