So Long Scantrons. Hello Typing & Other Skills for Online Assessments

The majority of states either offer or require online assessment formats for standardized testing. As this transition has occurred, educators are noticing a significant drop in overall student performance on these computer-based tests when compared to paper-based test scores of peers. For example:

  • Illinois students who took paper-and-pencil exams performed 56 percent better than students taking the online assessment version.
  • In Baltimore County, the percentage of students scoring proficient on the ELA test was 35 points lower for online test takers as opposed to those who took the test on paper.
  • Rhode Island officials found that 42.5 percent of students who took PARCC English language arts exam on paper scored proficient as compared to 34 percent of those who took the exam on a computer.

Because these high-stakes assessments are often used to assess school rank, educator performance, and student readiness for the following grade, the lower scores are deeply problematic for schools.

Data also finds that the rise of online assessments exacerbates issues with learning equity. A report from the Calder Center finds: “strong evidence that…students scoring lower on [computer-based tests] represent true test mode effects that cannot be explained by preexisting trends in the performance of schools…In addition, the effects in ELA are most pronounced for students at the bottom of the test score distribution.” 

Moreover, data suggests a causal relationship between changes in test modes and student performance that is most pronounced with already low-performing students.

Why is it that the shift from a paper to an online assessment format has hampered student performance and done so in inequitable ways?

In an interview, Sheida White, Statistician with the NCES National Assessment Branch, states:

“Likely key to the score differences…is the role of "facilitative" computer skills such as keyboarding ability and word-processing skills…When a student [who has those skills] is generating an essay, their cognitive resources are focused on their word choices, their sentence structure, and how to make their sentences more interesting and varied - not trying to find letters on a keyboard, or the technical aspects of the computer.”

Indeed, technology skills are elemental to student preparation for online assessments. With technology skills practice, students are empowered to focus on the content of the questions rather than the technical aspects of navigating the assessment.

To learn more about the role technology skills play in student performance, read our article: Online Assessment Woes and the Technology Skills Antidote. Otherwise, we are going to review the specific technology skills needed for adequate student preparation for online assessments and how these skills are assessed based on sample question types students may encounter.

Technology Skills for Online Assessments

Technology skills for these tests range from page navigation to visual mapping with spreadsheets. To prepare students for online assessments, it is critical they are familiar with the following:

Computer Fundamentals: To navigate the test and identify and access support resources, students must be knowledgeable of these different elements on the testing interface. Computer fundamentals can also include clicking into text fields to type, selecting from multiple choice lists, and navigating between test questions.

Typing: Students must have the requisite typing skills to input numerical and short- and long-answer questions at a speed necessary to complete the online assessment.

Word Processing: Beyond basic typing skills, students must also be comfortable with word processing to write, review, and revise their answers.

Spreadsheet Management: Students should be able to create charts to visually display data and also interpret this data when posed in questions.

For a more granular list of skills, here is a technology skills checklist prepared by an Oregon school district. Now, let’s review specific digital literacy skills needed to address different aspects online assessments.


Assessment Navigation & Accessibility Tools

At the most basic level, students need to know how to navigate the test’s interface, recognize and apply the accessibility tools, and understand how to engage with different types of test content without inciting confusion or using precious test-taking time to haltingly familiarize themselves with the tools.

Page Navigation:  If students do not understand the controls (zoom in/zoom out) or know how to use vertical scroll bars to see text in its entirety, they will be at a disadvantage when reading the task at hand.

 screen navigation for computer-based tests

Accessibility Tools: Online assessments also provide students with accessibility tools like note-taking and strikethrough capabilities. Without knowing to look for these or how to use them, students are unable to leverage the support tools provided to them.

accessibility tools for computer-based tests

Multimedia Elements: Online assessment questions sometimes include multimedia elements, such as audio recording, videos, and slide presentations. It is critical students can launch these elements and properly engage with them to successfully answer their related questions.

 multimedia tools for computer-based tests

Now, let's turn to the different question types that students are likely to encounter and the specific technology skills demanded by each.


Technology Skills for Short and Long Answer Questions

long answer for computer-based tests

Computer fundamentals: Students know to click into text fields to type.

Typing: Students can type at a requisite speed needed to sufficiently provide answers in the allotted time.

Word Processing: Students understand how to produce formatted text and perform basic writing, formatting, and editing using word processing tools.


Technology Skills for Multiple Choice & Multi-Select

multiple select question types for computer-based tests
multiple choice question types for computer-based tests

Computer fundamentals: Students know to select from multiple choice lists and recognize when multi-select features are present.


Technology Skills for Grids, Equations, and Table Questions

math tools for computer-based tests

Computer fundamentals: Students know to click into text fields and drag and drop answers to their correct location.

Typing: Students are comfortable using the number pad.

Spreadsheets: Students need knowledge of drawing and line tools and the ability to use a spreadsheet as a tool to create their own visual representations, graphs, and charts. At the same time, students must also be able to interpret visual representations.

Technology skills are, moreover, critical to student preparation for online assessments. Yet, their importance does not end there—technology skills prepare students for high school and play a vital role in overcoming 21st century challenges like the digital divide

For more about preparing students for online assessments, watch this webinar to learn how a district improved student performance on these tests by creating a digital literacy program.

Written By

Anna McVeigh-Murphy

Anna is equip’s managing editor, though she also likes to dabble in writing from time to time. Anna is passionate about helping educators leverage technology to connect with and learn from each other. In pursuing digital learning communities, she has worked with several hundred educators to tell their stories and share their insights via online publications. Outside of this, she has also led professional development for teachers in both English and Arabic and served as the primary editor for several university professors writing both book chapters and journal articles. Anna is also an avid baker and self-described gluten enthusiast, a staunch defender of the oxford comma, and a proud dog mom to two adorable rescue pups.

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