Clickers Offer Alternative to States Stung by Computer Testing

A number of states that have had issues with computer-based testing might now have an alternative they can use: the hand-held clicker typically deployed to gauge instant public opinion. The developers of the Triton Date Collection System believe that their technology can take the place of the ubiquitous Scantron sheets and online, computer-based testing.

According to the maker of the system, Turning Technologies, taking tests using the hand-held device is simple. Exams would be provided in the paper form and students would be able to use the clicker's keypad to input answers.

David C. Carr of Information Week explains that although the clicker is an older technology and doesn't have the same kind of flash as newer computer-based testing systems, what it does have is reliability.

Reliability has not been a hallmark of automated testing that relies on PCs connecting to servers over the Internet, as Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota and Oklahoma found out this year. "Thousands of students experienced slow loading times of test questions, students were closed out of testing in mid-answer, and some were unable to log in to the tests," EducationWeek reported. "Hundreds, if not thousands, of tests may be invalidated. The difficulties prompted all three states' education departments to extend testing windows, made some state lawmakers and policymakers reconsider the idea of online testing, and sent district officials into a tailspin."

The issues were particularly pronounced in Indiana, where testing was interrupted for an estimated 80,000 Indiana students; an additional 67,000 also were said to have encountered some disruption in the process of taking the state's standardized assessment.

Krista Stochman, the public information officer for Ft. Wayne Community Schools, said that while the district was expecting glitches, what happened could hardly be considered a glitch. It was a systematic failure of the system that jeopardized testing integrity not just in Ft. Wayne but the entire state.

Server overload was blamed for the failures. CBT/McGraw-Hill apologized during a senate hearing on the problem, saying that load testing done prior to the exam did a poor job of simulating real demand.

The Triton system is designed to be fail-safe and able to work in "low to no bandwidth" settings. Rather than downloading a question at a time from a remote server and posting the response, questions are delivered on paper and stored in a "triple redundant" scheme — meaning encrypted answers are stored on the device, on a "receiver" (a classroom PC that caches the data) and on a centralized server. But if the connection to the server is interrupted, or the receiver PC fails, the answers can be relayed up the chain later. On the other hand, when everything is working right, test results are ready for analysis just as quickly as they would be if students took their tests on PCs.

07 23, 2013
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