Virginia Moves Standardized Testing to Computers

No more pencils or paper for Virginia students preparing for the state’s standardized exams. Starting this year, Virginia becomes one of the first states to administer their standardized exams entirely on a computer. The first set of tests are already on the way, as students are using the keyboard and screen so the schools can determine how well they’re progressing in mathematics and reading.

What is surprising is that Virginia managed to vault over many other states that are working to adapt to new national testing standards, even though the state has not adopted those standards itself. The state’s education experts believed that adopting a new set of standards would be to disruptive to students and teachers, although their own recently approved learning metrics follow the federal guidelines very closely.

Virginia introduced more challenging math tests last year, leading to a significant drop in scores. And this year the state is administering updated reading, science and writing tests. The tests take advantage of the online format and move beyond multiple-choice questions to tap higher-order thinking skills. The push for online testing in Virginia dates to 2000 and corresponds to a larger push to expand the use of technology in schools.

It’s less expensive to supply each child with a pencil and a paper than a computer and a mouse, but the money to upgrade the schools’ technological infrastructure came from the General Assembly which dedicated nearly $60 million for the task. Virginia struck a deal with Pearson to develop the exams.

Once the money was in place, things moved quickly. By 2007 more than 50% of Virginia students were taking their state-mandated tests online and last year nearly 95% of students did likewise.

Loudoun and Prince William counties were administering all their tests online by last school year. Alexandria and Fairfax County are finishing their roll-out to elementary schools this spring. A small number of special-education students will still be able to take the paper test.

Even with more than a decade to make the change, there were hurdles, said Sarah Susbury, the state’s director of test administration, scoring and reporting. She remembers software glitches and server malfunctions. Once, a school’s fiber-optic cables were cut during construction work.

In 2007, various technological glitches forced up to 10,000 students around the state to restart the exam. Later that year, a power outage threatened to bring down another test session, but this time backup power packs kept the computers and lights operating so students could proceed without interruption.