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  • by Blaine Helwig

Transitioning to the Digital/On-Line Testing World

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

The vast majority of states have moved toward digital standardized testing. They have done this for a couple reasons. First, MONEY! It is a lot cheaper to get away from paper assessments. Second, student results are in immediately, and simple coding algorithms are easy to write to determine if a question or two was statistically missed far too many times. Hence, that question may be written poorly and discarded in the overall grading process. Third, there is a belief – and for good reason – we are in the digital arena forevermore. Lastly, it is likely the integrity and quality controls are heightened with on-line assessments.


For the meantime, digital testing has arrived. More on this later.

Now, an educator’s ability to transition from paper-pencil work in the classroom to a digital environment is the key to success. Some schools will do this much better than others, but in all honesty, I fully expect a generally, poor transition process from paper-pencil to on-line digital testing. Unfortunately, if there is one thing that far too many campus and district administrators do not do consistently well – it is problem solving and completely grasping the number of relevant factors in a challenging situation. Thus, I suspect that a high number of elementary schools will not transition well to full-on digital testing for many a year. Why? The mass of administrators – the folks that making the purchase decisions on curricular resource adoptions may opt to fully implement digital resources in their schools. At first glance, this conclusion seems obvious as the one to make. In short, students are testing on-line; they must practice how they will play. However, it is NOT the correct course of action – at least not in an elementary school setting. Elementary school administrators should implement a combination of digital and paper- pencil at differing rates throughout the school year. Why? One must remember the content material on the assessment has NOT changed – only the medium in which the test is presented to students. Understanding this concept is the key to maintaining or heightening student outcomes when transitioning to a digital assessment format!


Math Processing Steps from Paper-Pencil to Digital On-Line Assessments


On-line reading and writing assessments are more difficult to transition than either the math or science tests due to the endemic content of each core subject. Reading language arts’ (RLA/ELA) passages must be read and written with exclusive computer engagement. It is the nature of that content, but that is not the case for either math or science. Hence, let’s first focus on the math (or science) transition procedure for elementary school students from paper-pencil practice to a digital/computer-based medium.

  1. Elementary teachers should begin the year with much higher paper-pencil work than computer work. The meaning of the word, “elementary” means fundamental and rudimentary. Children are learning arithmetic – basic math that has been in existence and use for millenniums. Of course, and as expected developmentally, this level of mathematics is challenging for elementary students. They need guidance from a human being – a caring, engaging adult that corrects misconceptions in real time and provides the needed repetition in discrete math fact and processing skills as well in problem-solving applications. Far too often, a computer program can be designed to check these content areas as well, but human error frequently comes into play. An elementary teacher is a busy person all day in the classroom – and the first thing they will NOT check and respond to is computer analysis/feedback. But, if the learning session is paper-pencil guided or independent practice, teachers invariably monitor and provide needed interventions in real-time. Their students’ completed work is readily visible and the teacher can easily facilitate supportive, guiding and corrective feedback to the child.

  2. The teacher should set-up a structured learning process toward skill development, problem solving and work-habits – in a teacher-controlled classroom setting. In short, this pedagogical process separates master teachers from the rest of their profession. Why? A structured teacher’s results are higher for time-on-task, skill accountability, effective classroom management and content focus with their students – and those students in that classroom setting learn more. Further clarifying, ‘structure’ means that the teacher is setting up a non-negotiable repetitive and learning process so their students solve application word/story problems correctly every time. There are many very effective problem-solving acronyms that I have seen over the years. They are equally effective. Personally, I have used RACERead the Problem; All needed data circled/underlined (including sentence that states what the student is asked to find); Computations – show all work; and Evaluate the reasonableness of your answer. Students write RACE on their paper, above their work on each problem, and check each letter of RACE after that stage has been completed. Eventually, the process is ingrained to long-term memory and it becomes a natural skill extension toward their problem-solving approach.

The above two (2) steps must be clearly established prior to transitioning to a computer based solving modus operandi or students will unsurprisingly form bad habits. It is too easy for young students to read a word/story problem on the computer and not be deliberate in solving it. Thus, students must transition to a computer-based assessment adequately prepared for that medium based on foundational problem-solving methods.

Since the medium is the only real change, it is not difficult to design this practice on controlled paper-pencil similar exercises. The key step is simple and effective: Students should always show their work on a separate piece of blank notebook paper, and their solution must be compiled in an organized manner. Students should not mark-up the problem or work on the same sheet where the problem is written or displayed. Exception – graphing questions, Cartesian coordinate problems, etc. As expected, a student will not redraw those select few types of questions on a separate piece of paper. Consequently, for the vast majority of the digital mathematics test, students are solving digitally viewed problems in the same manner as they do paper-pencil – an efficient and effective transition.


Important Implementation/Consideration Notes


As the school year progresses, increase the minutes students practice on the computer for the computer based-medium, as needed; however, the paper-pencil method is a non-negotiable that is used in conjunction with the digital format. Students are engaging in the exact same methodology regardless of the type of assessment format.

A simple and exceedingly low-tech inexpensive method to transition (and practice) from paper-pencil work to a computer digital testing environment is for the teacher to write a typical math or science problem commonly found on standardized tests on the white board/document camera, etc. Then, students are required to solve the problem - with the math/science problem only shown as a visual as if they were viewing the problem on a computer screen. Next, students practice and solve the visual problem using a previously learned, structured approach on a separate piece of paper or in a spiral bound notebook. In doing so, a teacher can check students' problem solving work flow, and he/she possesses more control over students' showing work as well as corrective feedback for specific students, as needed. This instructional strategy ensures that the teacher possesses confidence that students have not only been shown a successful method in problem solving, but it provides confidence that students consistently employ that learned approach in real time and later when they are digitally assessed!!! It is recommended practicing this methodology once a day for a month, and students will exhibit much better computational and work flow problem solving behavior when in a digital testing environment. Revisit this methodology IF the students regress in their problem solving work flow using sound methodology on a digital medium. It is important to note that on consulting visits to schools to observe students engaged in a digital testing environment, many times, it was apparent that students had NOT been shown a transition method from paper-pencil to digitally-based assessments. On these visits, students demonstrated little to no evidence in their computations and problem solving work flow (in a digital testing mode); consequently, students' haphazard problem solving approaches resulted in incorrect solutions.

It is also important to emphasize that grade level math processing skill proficiency and math fact automaticity remain a key requirement for academic success regardless of the assessment medium. Also, students’ prior grade level numeracy skills must be addressed. If not, it is immaterial if students are assessed on paper-pencil or a digital format, for they are not academically and fundamentally prepared.


Final Thoughts - Keeping the Big Picture in Focus


Computer testing is a reality and schools must adapt to the new medium – but administrators must remember, it is ONLY a new medium – the assessment content has not changed. As a retired campus administrator, if I were faced with adapting to on-line testing, I would attempt to change the bare minimum from classroom pedagogy that has proven effective. The efficiency of computer programming is a modern-day phenomenon, but unlike what too many educators appear to think, computers do not radically change the fundamental content in elementary schools. In short, computers are not saving children from receiving poor educations – only teachers and campus administrators can handle that task. A computer will not motivate a child like the encouragement from a caring and invested educator.

In my opinion, computer-based testing will remain the medium for secondary schools (6th through 12th grades) from this point forward; however, I believe elementary school state assessments may return to a pencil-paper format in several years – or, at least provide campuses the option for it. Why? I feel student outcomes will be driven lower due to computer assessments for three primary reasons. One, generally speaking, many teachers will over rely on computer programs to do the teaching that they actually do best. Two, the math and science are easily adapted to computer testing with the method described above; however, the reading and writing test does not. Educators must expend a tremendous amount of time learning that medium and how to efficiently touch-type to respond to questions. Secondary students can more easily adapt to the computer medium; elementary students between the ages of 9 and 11, cannot. There is too much time wasted on computer training to use this medium when over half the elementary children in this country are struggling to read, write and do math on grade level. I also believe the time lost in computer medium training and instruction is more injurious to low-income students than their more affluent peers, and that is definitely the wrong direction an assessment format should be taking. Three, studies have shown that children and adults do not read as well digitally as they do reading print text - at least from a comprehension perspective. Of course, our standardized reading tests are assessing comprehension regardless of the assessment format. Consequently, this question begs to be answered, 'How much lower are students' reading results due to the computer medium?' If the studies are correct, this is a valid concern. So, at least for elementary students, I am of the opinion that students should read from chapter books/novels and be assessed on standardized testing with traditional processes of pencil and paper.


Computer testing is a medium – it is not a substitute to human pedagogy and interaction. Elementary teachers and administrators, “please do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Think about transitioning each school year from paper-pencil to digital assessments. The word ‘elementary’ will always mean rudimentary and fundamental. Focus your teachers’ classroom work on student engagement and accountability to learning. It is the summative objective to provide students the academic and social building blocks to do well in middle and high school – and beyond.


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