From state assessments to the SATs, many exams now have digital components. In a recent Logitech and Education Week survey, 93% of teachers, principals, and district leaders reported that their students take exams digitally. Digital assessment is also reaching beyond traditional exams to incorporate any assessment of learning in the classroom and to gauge student progress throughout the year.
As digital assessment grows, districts and schools face new expectations, challenges and opportunities. At its best, this type of assessment can be used to personalize how students demonstrate learning and express their knowledge. District leaders and educators can advance this goal by thoughtfully introducing ed-tech in the classroom.
With a few simple shifts that reduce stress and barriers, test scores can become representative of students’ knowledge, not their ability to use the technology.
Advantages and challenges of digital assessment
One big advantage of digital assessment is the opportunity to evaluate student learning in a manageable way. Online exams support student choice in how they express knowledge and enable individual expression of learning, particularly in competency-based education environments. Instead of having to assess these expressions by hand, teachers can save time through online assessment without sacrificing the accurate measurement of student progress.
The prevalence of digital assessment has, however, led to what researchers have named the “online penalty.” One large-scale study from 2019 showed that students who take digital exams sometimes perform as if they lost several months of learning. The effect disproportionately harmed students from low-income families, English language learners, and students with disabilities.
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The good news is researchers found this effect represents a learning curve that improves over time. In Massachusetts, students who experienced lower exam scores in the first year of online testing improved the following year. The challenge is that many students are still not comfortable with online assessment technology. In the 2022 Logitech and Education Week study, less than half of teachers said their students were “very comfortable” with the exam technology they use.
While the statistic is alarming, there are opportunities for district leaders to minimize the online effect while setting students up for success and improving learning outcomes long term.
Choose ed-tech that is designed for students
Edtech should enhance—not hinder—learning. The challenge is that many tools are not designed for education, pushing district leaders to repurpose existing technology that was designed for adults and make adaptations that frustrate students.
Administrators and teachers should consider the physical, cognitive, and emotional development of students. Development may impact how students sit, grip a stylus, the strength of their fingers to push buttons on a keyboard, the way they process classroom noise or even their willingness to ask for help if they’re struggling with certain technology.
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This was the case in a rural district in Western New York. They adopted a rigorous, technology-supported curriculum. But on state assessments, middle school math students struggled to show what they knew on school-issued iPads.
Students tried writing answers to problems on their tablets using their fingers. Their answers were illegible to officials grading the standardized tests and this impacted student performance. When the district started using a stylus designed for education, students were able to more effectively demonstrate what they know.
In part because of this, and in combination with other efforts, fifth and sixth graders’ math scores rose to No. 1 in Western New York and the school’s overall state test ranking rose to 88 from 42 out of 96.
Allow for student choice and voice in the decision-making process
When the right ed-tech supports online exams, it can amplify the benefits of student-centered learning. Students who can choose tools that match their learning style are able to more authentically express their knowledge. Digital assessment can go beyond multiple choice and long-form answers to include gamification, creating with digital media, mind-mapping and other options that offer multiple ways to express knowledge.
Plus some tools, such as the styluses in the rural New York district mentioned above, can give students opportunities to clearly demonstrate competencies rather than their results being reflective of their ability to use the technology. The more administrators and teachers can create student agency with ed-tech, the more they will boost student engagement and confidence during assessments.
Increase professional development and training for teachers
While many districts are rapidly implementing assessment technology, most teachers receive little to no training on how to help their students use peripherals like mice and keyboards properly. One solution is to choose technology that is simple, intuitive and works out of the box.
Another solution is to adjust how teachers are provided training—but this isn’t as simple as just giving them more PD. Educators are already time-strapped. To make the best use of the time available, professional development should be scheduled, focused, collaborative and ongoing.
Administrators and leaders can best serve teachers by focusing on what they need to know. Intentionally embedding time for professional development into the school year calendar ensures that training doesn’t get squeezed into lunch or planning periods.
Beyond initial training, creating opportunities for collaborative and continued learning will help teachers become more comfortable with ed-tech. Technology coaches, teacher leaders or professional learning communities can give teachers built-in communities to learn from. Administrators can further reinforce training by scheduling follow-ups to ensure teachers can ask questions or get additional help weeks or even months after training sessions.
Providing more training for teachers, investing in technology designed for learners, and enabling student choice and voice are all steps that district leaders can take to reduce barriers and support positive assessment outcomes.