So I found this blog and this article got me thinking about the current direction of testing.
A growing number of studies conclude that students perform worse on tests when they take them online than when the questions are on paper.
A study published by MIT and conducted at the U.S. Military Academy found that the students who did not use computers scored significantly higher than those who did.
The researchers suggested that removing laptops and iPads from classes was the equivalent of improving the quality of teaching.
The study divided 726 undergraduates randomly into three groups in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years. The control group’s classrooms were “technology-free,” meaning students were not allowed to use laptops or tablets at their desk. Another group was allowed to use computers and other devices, and the third group had restricted access to tablets.
“The results from our randomised experiment suggest that computer devices have a substantial negative effect on academic performance,” the researchers concluded, suggesting that the distraction of an electronic device complete with internet access outweighed their use for note-taking or research during lessons.
The research had an unusual twist: the students involved were studying at the West Point academy in the US, where cadets are ruthlessly ranked by exam results, meaning they were motivated to perform well and may have been more disciplined than typical undergraduates.
But even for the cream of the US army’s future crop, the lure of the digital world appears to have been too much, and exam performance after a full course of studying economics was lower among those in classes allowed to use devices.
“Our results indicate that students perform worse when personal computing technology is available. It is quite possible that these harmful effects could be magnified in settings outside of West Point,” the researchers concluded.
The Hechinger Report reported that writing online essays may contribute to a widening of the achievement gap.
The U.S. Department of Education launched a study of fourth graders using computers for writing compared to fourth graders using paper and pencil.
High-performing students did substantially better on the computer than with pencil and paper. But the opposite was true for average and low-performing students. They crafted better sentences using pencil and paper than they did using the computer. Low-income and black and Hispanic students tended to be in this latter category.
“(T)he use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap,” concluded the working paper, “Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment.” If so, that has big implications as test makers, with the support of the Department of Education, move forward with their goal of moving almost all students to computerized assessments, which are more efficient and cheaper to grade.
In the study, high-performing students — the top 20 percent of the test takers — produced an average of 179 words per assignment on the computer, three times the number of words that the bottom 20 percent produced. They also used spellcheck, backspace and other editing tools far more often. The researchers found that these high-performing students were more likely to have access to a computer and the Internet at home.
But these high achievers were in the minority. More than two-thirds of fourth-graders’ responses received scores in the bottom half of a 6-point scoring scale that rated grammar and writing quality. Overall, the average fourth-grader typed a total of 110 words per assignment, far less than the 159-word average on the 2010 paper test.
In looking for explanations for the disparity in performance, it seems likely that the high-performing students are more familiar with computers than low-performing students or even those in the middle.
But it is also likely, at least to me, that it is easier to read and re-read a passage when it is on paper than to read it online. Some young children may have difficulty scrolling up and down the page.
And there may be a difference in recall associated with the medium. That requires further study.
Let me confess that I have tried and failed to read books on a Kindle or similar device. It is easy to lose your place; it is hard to find it again. Maybe the difficulty is age-related; after all, I have only been using a computer for 32 years and began using it as an adult. Children who grow up in the digital age may not have the same visual problem that I have in reading large blocs of text. But it will take more studies to figure out when it is beneficial to use the computer and when it is not. Unfortunately policymakers have rushed into online instruction and online assessments on the assumption (untested) that there are no downsides. They do this, as the Hechinger Report says, because the computer makes it easier and cheaper to grade tests. Standardization has some benefits. But it also has drawbacks. We should be aware of both.