Best Practices in Computer-Based and Online Testing

In 2010, a very useful book was published by The Council of Chief State School Officers and the Association of Test Publishers. It is titled Operational Best Practices for Statewide Large-Scale Assessment Programs. Caveon’s very own Dr. John Fremer contributed as part of the working committee to the overall effort and provided a chapter or two. As the title suggests, the book provides some “best practices” in a good many areas of interest to all testing professionals, particularly those involved in paper-and-pencil state assessments. A testing program can use the book to evaluate its own practices, and to guide efforts at change if necessary.

Given the intense interest today in delivering tests on the computer, it’s not a surprise that there was immediate interest in a revision of the book, one that would include best practices for programs using or wishing to implement technology-based tests. These are tests that are administered on computers via local servers, or delivered online through secure browsers. Choosing the specific technology used to administer the tests is not an easy chore and should be carefully done. The newest model, online testing—testing administered securely through browsers—is becoming more and more popular with high-stakes testing programs.

But what are we to think about the concept of best practices when a methodology is new and developing, when few organizations are experienced with it? How can a best practice even be identified with so little applied experience and when change accompanies that technology almost daily. It’s my opinion that our concept of what is a best practice has to evolve if we are to find it useful in the face of new and constantly changing technology.

To solve this conundrum I’d like to propose that we adopt a more accepting approach toward innovation and technology. This means that we should seriously consider innovations even though dozens or hundreds of other programs have not yet tried it out. This optimistic attitude is critical if we are to find these innovations immediately helpful, and, more importantly, if we are to set ourselves on a path to accommodate change occurring on a more constant basis. New technologies can be evaluated against reasonable criteria that reveal how the innovation will improve the reliability, validity, security and fairness of the tests. This is especially easy to do if by implementing the technology we are solving a long-standing concern or problem. My own experience developing and using new technologies over the past 30 years has been very rewarding.

Just a word about standards and technology. Some feel that using new technology violates or threatens standards. That certainly hasn’t been my experience. Throughout my career, as I used new technologies in testing, I have found that in each case it enhanced my ability to meet the standards, rather than threaten them. An example may help here. In 1990 at Novell we implemented a new multiple choice question type that allowed for more than one correct answer. No one had used it before. It immediately helped us to eliminate confusion for our test takers from negatively worded multiple choice questions. There is no standard that states that multiple choice questions must only have a single correct answer, but there are standards that require us to improve the quality of our questions.

Now, a final word about statewide educational testing. The joint committee working on the revision of the Operational Best Practices for Statewide Large-Scale Testing will provide a set of best practices in the coming months for technology-based tests. Hopefully these suggestions will be met with enthusiasm and optimism. If they are, statewide assessment programs will find it much easier to meet the very ambitious goals set by themselves, the federal government, and other stakeholders.

David Foster

President and CEO, Caveon Test Security

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