Usable Knowledge Testing Mode Matters New research finds a score penalty for computer-based testing — at least at first Posted January 31, 2019 By Grace Tatter Taking a test online rather than on paper might hurt students’ test scores — at least at first — according to a study from the American Institutes for Research (AIR). In a study published in the February issue of the Economics of Education Review (presented in an April 2018 working paper), AIR researchers James Cowan and Ben Backes looked at the scores of Massachusetts students during the first two years of online testing. In 2015 and 2016, about half of Massachusetts students took PARCC, the state-administered end-of-year test, online, while half took a paper-and-pencil version. According to the AIR researchers, the students who took the test online performed as if they’d had five fewer months of academic preparation in math and 11 fewer months of preparation in English than their peers who took the test on paper. There was no reason to believe that they were actually less prepared; instead, the mode of testing appeared to be dampening their results. On the English test, the scores of students from low-income families, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities seemed to be especially affected by the switch online. But the discrepancies in scores shrank in the second year of testing, suggesting that, once students get used to the new format, it is not as much of a hindrance. The students who took the test online performed as if they’d had five fewer months of academic preparation in math and 11 fewer months of preparation in English than their peers who took the test on paper. While Cowan and Backes aren’t sure why the Massachusetts students initially performed worse on computer-based testing, they have some hypotheses: students might not have been used to the types of questions asked, the format of the test, or the technology being used. “It could be the case that there are some other technical skills being tested [by computer testing], or it could be the preparation of the school to administer the test,” Backes says. Nevertheless, since end-of-year state tests continue to be used for decisions ranging from which schools to close to which teachers to reward with bonuses, it is important that policymakers and educators who make decisions using standardized-testing data give consideration to whether the mode of testing might affect the results they are seeing. “The state should think about how schools might be penalized for something out of their control,” Backes says. How schools can prepare their students for online tests A 2016 paper from Wendy Gelbart from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas offers some tips for helping prepare students with learning disabilities to the transition to computer-based testing that can be applied more generally. Take practice tests on the computer. Allow students to take practice tests that look like the end-of-year tests. This is especially crucial for students who need accommodations, like text-to-speech or adjusting font size, so they don’t have to spend time on testing day figuring out how to access the tools they need. Practice using technology in the classroom. Students do best when their testing environment is like their normal learning environment. Integrate technology into the classroom on a regular basis. Keep advocating for better tests. If high-stakes testing remains a lynchpin of education, they need to capture student learning. Teachers know better than anyone what design elements might hold their students back from showing what they truly know, and test designers should seek their feedback. Usable Knowledge Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities Explore All Articles Related Articles EdCast Student Testing, Accountability, and COVID Professor Andrew Ho on whether standardized testing is the best way to assess student learning — and learning loss — during COVID times. Usable Knowledge Testing 101 How to understand the purpose of your child’s tests. News Support for Common Core Drops 2015 "Education Next" poll measured public thinking on testing, opt out, common core, unions, and more.