Group warns against computer exams in Alaska, other states

FairTest: Technology 'not ready for prime time'

A nonprofit organization that advocates against what it calls “the misuses and flaws” of standardized student examinations warned Monday against large-scale implementation of computerized testing, something slated to happen in Alaska schools in the next two years.


The Massachusetts-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, pointed to technical difficulties several states have experienced with computerized exams as proof that the technology is “not ready for prime time.”

Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s public education director, called the computerized testing system the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium plans to introduce in Alaska and other states starting in the 2014-2015 school year “vaporware” that may fail due to overloaded servers, network outages or obsolete technology in classrooms.

“Computerized testing may have value down the road, but being rushed into it … forces people to adopt an assessment technology that does not appear to be ready for prime time,” Schaeffer said, adding, “We’re using our kids as guinea pigs to test this out.”

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development announced last month that Alaska had become the 26th member of SBAC, a state-led consortium that seeks to bring language arts and mathematics curricula in line with the Common Core State Standards, as an advisory state.

Questions directed to SBAC were referred to Erik McCormick, director of assessment, accountability and information management with the DEED.

“Since we are a state-led Consortium, I believe it would be more appropriate for the state to comment on the assessment system,” explained SBAC public information officer Eddie Arnold in an email Tuesday.

McCormick said the state of Alaska “absolutely” has concerns about implementing the year-end computerized test. He said an “inventory” is being conducted to assess the technical capacity of school districts and communities around the state.

But McCormick also pointed to the WorkKeys assessment, which 11th grade students in Alaska have been required to take since the 2010-2011 school year, as an example of Alaska implementing computerized testing without incident.

“Computerized testing has been successful,” McCormick wrote in an email Tuesday. “There have been minimal complications with using technology.”

The WorkKeys assessment can be administered via the traditional pencil-and-paper method at schools that lack the capacity for computerized testing, according to McCormick. He said the SBAC exams will have a similar opt-out option for the first three years.

“Everyone has three years to get to the point where we can test everyone electronically,” said McCormick. “We want to use that as an option for districts that absolutely cannot do it. But we want that to be an exception.”

The SBAC exams are more complex than most pencil-and-paper tests, as both Schaeffer and McCormick observed. While Schaeffer said that complexity could mean the testing system is more vulnerable to technical problems, McCormick suggested it will better assess individual students than traditional tests.

“Computerized adaptive testing allows a test to be more efficient than a fixed form test,” McCormick wrote in the email. “A computer adaptive assessment is individualized to each student. Each question is selected based on a student’s previous response so there is a much greater level of precision applied to an individual student.”

While Schaeffer acknowledged there are potential advantages to computerized testing, he said there is “real risk” in implementing the system before it has been fully vetted.

“The worst thing that can happen is … the system seizes up or collapses in the middle of an administration, leaving students frustrated,” said Schaeffer.

Schaeffer said that when young students see the words “technical failure” or something similar appear on their screen, it can lead them to believe they did something wrong.

“It doesn’t mean the kid’s failed — it means the system’s failed,” Schaeffer said.

The Associated Press has reported that technical glitches in computerized testing have frustrated students, teachers and administrators in states like Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota and Oklahoma in recent weeks. None of those four states are SBAC members.

McCormick wrote that “Alaska is monitoring closely the states that have recently implemented new computerized testing systems.” He added, “One of the reasons that Alaska selected Smarter Balanced is our confidence in the membership states that have proven successful experience with computerized testing.”

According to the SBAC website, the consortium conducted a “Pilot Test” this spring involving more than one million students in 21 states around the country. Alaska, the consortium’s newest member, was not among them.

SBAC described the pilot assessment as one of the “key milestones” in the leadup to the planned 2014-2015 school year computerized exam rollout.

Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at


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