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State helps lead way as online ISTEP goes viral

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During the past four years, students throughout the state have less often needed paper and pencils when taking achievement tests.

Indiana first started offering the multiple-choice portion of the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus exam online in 2009, and between 1 percent and 3 percent of the state’s students took the online exam, assistant superintendent for technology John Keller said.

Then two things happened: The state began requiring online testing for students in the upper grades, and more schools started looking on their own for different ways to use computers, tablets and the Internet in classrooms.

As schools, including those in Johnson County, started adding computers and increasing Internet capacity, it became easier to meet and exceed the state’s online ISTEP requirement, Keller said.

Last spring, about 70 percent of Indiana students who took the multiple-choice portion of ISTEP took the exam online, and next year nearly all students taking ISTEP will take that section online. That puts Indiana third in the nation for online testing, behind Oregon and Virginia, which already test nearly all students online, Keller said.

In the future, giving state exams online could mean faster results once Indiana becomes more experienced with how to best grade the online exams. The state also could save money because it no longer would have to box up and transport paper tests to schools, Keller said.

Students in Indiana don’t know yet what kind of test will replace ISTEP in two years. Originally the state planned to use the online Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam, but Glenda Ritz, who will take over as state superintendent of public instruction in January, isn’t convinced that’s the best exam for the state.

Ritz said she’s not opposed to using an online exam as long as all schools have the technology needed to provide it.

Making sure online exams work properly means schools have to individually inspect computers to ensure they meet state standards and are secure. The state also will need to continue with the dry runs it began this year that help ensure tens of thousands of students can take a test simultaneously to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2011, when about 10,000 students from around the state, including some in Clark-Pleasant, Greenwood and Franklin, were knocked offline while taking the test.

“That’s one of those things you don’t want to wait to get into the test to figure out,” Keller said.

But the fact that Indiana is close to nearly 100 percent implementation means many of the online testing challenges related to technology and test security likely have been resolved, Virginia Department of Education director of communications Charles Pyle said.

“By the time you’re closing in on that 100 percent, the big issues have been dealt with. Or else you wouldn’t be there,” he said.

Virginia and Oregon first made online tests available for schools in 2000 and 2001, respectively, Pyle and Oregon Department of Education communications manager Crystal Greene said.

By the 2005-06 school year, 90 percent of Oregon’s students were taking online exams, and by the 2010-11 school year all Oregon students were required to take state exams online unless they had a waiver, Greene said. This year all students in Virginia are required to take state exams online, unless they have a waiver, Pyle said.

One of the reasons online exams took off in Oregon was because principals began getting the results of the tests back more quickly. And, as in Indiana, schools started to look for ways to use computers and the Internet in the classroom around the same time, said Steve Slater, Oregon testing supervisor.

“The trend for using the Internet for instructional purposes was going on at the same time,” he said.

The online exams also mean Oregon can offer more time for testing.

Indiana students typically get a couple of weeks to give the multiple-choice and essay portions of ISTEP. But students taking Oregon’s state tests can be tested between November and May, Oregon assessment policy analyst Holly Carter said.

Most Oregon students are tested in the spring, after they’ve had time to master their grade level’s lessons, but advanced students can take the test earlier.

“It kind of sold itself,” Slater said of the online testing.

In Johnson County, school districts, including Clark-Pleasant, Center Grove and Franklin, have been using the Internet with computers and tablet devices in the classrooms. The districts have been adding to their Internet capabilities to keep up with the increase in online lessons but are ready if they’re suddenly asked to administer an online exam districtwide, technology directors have said.

Technology directors also need to be sure that computers used for the online tests can’t connect to non-testing websites and don’t allow students to use calculators or other tools they can’t have during the test, Keller said. A computer used for an online exam also must meet a specific set of state requirements — the screen, for example, needs to be large enough that students don’t have to scroll to see all of the answers to a multiple-choice question, Keller said.

He said most of the questions he receives from technology directors are about whether a set of computers they want to buy meets Indiana’s requirements. He tells them to buy the computers that teachers and students will get the best use out of. If they can use them for ISTEP, that’s great; but they’ll only be using them for ISTEP a few weeks out of the year, he said.

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