TAKS online testing option raises concerns; Aim is to save money, time, but cheating, fairness are worries

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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If you own stock in a company that makes No. 2 pencils, now might be a good time to sell.

After a few years of tiptoeing, Texas is preparing to take its first big step into online testing. School districts have the option to administer next spring’s TAKS test by computer.

“Students have become more and more accustomed to a computer environment,” said Susan Barnes, associate commissioner for standards and programs at the Texas Education Agency. “That has become the mode of how they interact.”

Some worry that the shift, designed to eventually save money and time, could have substantial implications for the tests’ fairness. Not every school has access to the same quality or quantity of computers.

It could also be a solution to Texas’ cheating problems – or make them worse, depending on who’s talking.

How many kids will take the TAKS online? Somewhere between zero and 1.6 million. It’s up to each school district to decide whether students will be clicking checkboxes or penciling in bubbles. Only students in grades seven and higher will get computer time; younger kids will remain paperbound.

Tackling Mount Paper

For those who don’t work in schools, it’s difficult to conceive of the amount of paper that Texas’ testing process requires. For weeks before test day, stacked boxes of test booklets and answer documents line the rooms of Texas schoolhouses. Each of those heavy boxes has to be shipped twice at great expense, first out to schools and then back to the scoring factory.

Multiply all those boxes times 7,000 schools to understand the small forest Texas destroys in the name of TAKS each year.

“I once justified the job of testing coordinator of this district by adding up the tonnage of paper we handled,” said Whit Johnstone, the director of testing and research for Irving schools.

The total, circa the mid-1990s: 15 tons. “It hasn’t gone down since then,” he said.

Testing online eliminates all of that. In a letter to school districts sent last month, TEA’s director of student assessment encouraged districts to move online because of the reduced paper handling and quicker grading turnarounds it promises.

“More importantly, within three years it is possible that some of the state assessments will be administered exclusively online,” wrote the official, Lisa Chandler.

All that paper lying around can also have an impact on test security. Some Texas schools have come under fire in recent years for potential cheating on the TAKS, driven either by students sharing answers or teachers providing them.

Moving tests online would prevent teachers from getting access to test questions days before the test or doctoring answer sheets once students are finished.

“So much of the security issue is counting booklets and answer sheets and making sure everything is secure and accounted for,” said Cynthia Bean, principal at Irving MacArthur High School. Until last month, she was principal at Austin Middle School, which has given the eighth-grade TAKS test online the last two years.

But Stephanie Gertz, a private testing consultant based in Boston, said she doesn’t think online testing will reduce cheating in the long term.

“I think you’ll see a dip in cheating initially, as they switch to the computers,” she said. “But if people want to cheat, they can cheat. I guess I don’t have much faith in people. Or you could say I have a lot of faith in people’s ingenuity.”

If hackers can break into Defense Department computers, there probably will be some 15-year-old who can break into a test company’s server, she reasons. It may be difficult to restrict access to other programs on a computer – like a Web browser or instant messenger client that could help kids find answers – during test administrations.

And if schools are allowed to give tests within a window of time – instead of all on the same day – students may find ways to distribute answers to friends, using screen-capture programs or other tools.

“Students are creative,” Dr. Barnes of the TEA said. “We will be vigilant.”

What about fairness?

The fairness issues are perhaps the thorniest. With the paper-and-pencil TAKS, a testing classroom in Brownsville is virtually identical to one in Beaumont. But not every school offers the same quality of or access to computers.

Dr. Gertz said she expects that problem to go away with time, as computers become more common in poorer homes and classrooms. Until then, she said, Texas is smart to make online testing optional for districts.

Texas has dipped its testing toes in the online waters before. It has allowed schools to volunteer their eighth-graders as TAKS guinea pigs for the last several years. In addition, kids who have failed the exit-level TAKS – required for graduation – have been able to take some retests online.

Those attempts haven’t always been smooth. Last December, during an exit-level TAKS retest, server problems led to crashes and nerve-wracking problems. Dr. Johnstone said Irving staff spent most of the morning one test day trying to connect their computers to the state servers that held the test.

“There have been some hiccups,” Dr. Johnstone said. For the teenagers who were taking the most important test of their young lives: “It wasn’t comfortable.”

Dr. Barnes acknowledged the past issues but said the system will be able to scale to the size required if hundreds of thousands of children are to take an online test at the same time.

An informal survey of North Texas school districts did not find any ready to commit to giving the TAKS online next spring, but for the most part those decisions are yet to be made. In Irving, for instance, the decision will be left up to individual principals, Dr. Johnstone said.

“I think it would be fabulous,” Ms. Bean said. “I think it’s the wave of the future, and I would want to be a part of that.”

Texas isn’t quite at the leading edge of online testing. It’s still many electrons shy of states like Virginia, where 90 percent of this spring’s state high-school assessments were taken on computers. The success of online testing there has encouraged the push down into middle schools and, starting this spring, elementary schools.

In Virginia, schools can receive their students’ results the same day the test is given, which means they can push weaker kids into remediation more quickly. In Texas, getting back test results is a question of weeks, not hours.

“We were looking for ways to speed up the process, and online testing was one way to do it,” said Julie Grimes, a Virginia Department of Education spokeswoman.