Michigan Explores Ideas on Computer-based Student Assessment

Michigan is exploring the possibility of using online exams for student assessment in order to better gauge each test-taker's achievement level. The implemented system would be adaptive to the skills of every student, substituting questions on the fly based on the difficulty of the question the student had answered correctly during the course of the exam. Michigan is one of 26 states in the U.S. working to develop and roll out the system, which they hope will go live after the 2014-2015 school year. The new system is thought of as a replacement for the Michigan Education Assessment Program, which will be retired.

Not only will the new system give districts a better idea of academic outcomes, the data provided will also go to helping the teachers better tailor lesson plans to their students' particular strengths and weaknesses. As part of the rollout, so-called "interim tests" will be given throughout the year, in part to provide that kind of teacher guidance.

"It's something that I think all teachers want," said Kristen Karbon, coordinator for curriculum and assessment for the 12,000-student Troy public schools. She is looking forward to the addition of "formative" tests that teachers could use to "pre-assess" a classroom's knowledge level.

Moving to a computer-based test will also speed up the grading, as the state expects to be able to grade all the exams in less than 48 hours. The tests will also be administered in the spring instead of in the fall. The new system will allow students to retake the tests in which they performed poorly, since the window for exam taking will be expanded to 12 weeks rather than one day.

Although the system sounds ideal, a great deal will depend on the company with which the states will partner in order to design questions for their exams. A recent controversy in New York, and elsewhere, over questions written by the Pearson Foundation, which were deemed nonsensical by both students and their parents, raised concerns over the overall quality of high-stakes exams. Pearson, which has a $32 million contract with New York, and likewise contracted with other states, has also gotten into hot water over free trips it provided to education commissioners, especially those who were in a position to guide district business to the company.

The trips are solely educational, says the foundation's officials, claiming they have no business purpose. The foundation's tax forms leave blank the line for listing "payments of travel or entertainment expenses for any federal, state or local public officials".

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