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Oregon helps lead the way in online testing

Print By Betsy Hammond, The Oregonian Email the author | Follow on Twitter on August 03, 2013 at 9:08 AM, updated August 03, 2013 at 12:11 PM

View full sizeTom Birch, a student at Western

Governors University, takes a tax accounting final exam at his Southeast Portland home. He drapes his windows and aims a web cam at his face and hands so a remote proctor can see that he is not cheating on the all-important exam.Betsy Hammond / The Oregonian

Nationally, jitters abound as schools prepare to go whole-hog into online testing. But Oregon's long experience giving all state reading, math and science tests via computer shows it can be done with few glitches, even in remote schools, on outdated computers and by 8-year-olds. By 2014-15, students in most states, including Oregon, will take a new breed of harder, more open-ended reading and math tests -- all online. Separately, themakers of the ACT college-entrance exam just announced they'll begin giving the test on computers and iPads starting in spring 2015.

"The trend in student usage is definitely moving to digital," said Jon Erickson, president of the education division of ACT. "We'll be freeing students from No. 2 pencils." Doug Kosty, Oregon's assistant superintendent over testing, said other states want to know how Oregon shed the pencils and bubble sheets that are still the norm in most U.S. schools. "People call me up quite a bit and say, 'How did you guys do it? Should I be afraid?'" Kosty said. He tells them to be cautious and shares lessons Oregon learned during its gradual, fouryear shift to testing all 200,000-plus test-takers on computers. Helping schools set up computer labs and testing over months to give every student enough computer time are key, Kosty said. Another education outfit that operates in Oregon, the nonprofit and exclusively online Western Governors University, has helped pioneer a way to allow students to take high-stakes tests online alone at home. The university, relying on testing security company Kryterion and inexpensive cameras, uses biometrics, keystroke patterns and remote human monitors to ensure the student, not a stand-in, takes the test and does not cheat. Test-takers must adjust lighting and a camera to enable a person monitoring the camera feed to clearly see the test-taker's desktop, face and hands at all times. The remote proctor matches the student via camera to his university photo ID and checks whether the student displays the same keystrokes when typing his or her name, said Provost David Leasure. It sounds like Big Brother, but Leasure said, "I have not really seen any pushback on this. They understand the importance of the integrity of the exam." The final exam may be the only factor that determines whether the student gets credit for the course. Western Governors student Tom Birch of Southeast Portland appreciates being able to learn at his own pace and test as soon as he is ready. He's powered through at least 15 online final exams in the past nine months, passing them all. It's a familiar routine to clear his desk, position the web cam and log in to a secure testing site.

Elsewhere, schools and districts are fretting that they won't have enough computers -- or money for more -- in time to test all students on two big exams set to replace state reading and math tests in most states. Others fear technological glitches like the one that swept Indiana this spring, when testing company CTB/McGraw-Hill's servers got overwhelmed and crashed, leaving thousands of students unable to take important tests. The new tests are referred to as PARCC and Smarter Balanced, shorthand terms for the multi-state groups developing them: Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Oregon has been a lead state in the Smarter Balanced coalition. The state Board of Education chose the coalition's test as the one for Oregon students beginning in 2014-15. Many Oregon districts gave students a pilot version of the tests this spring. Kosty said he has advised Smarter Balanced officials to avoid early mistakes Oregon made. "There were a lot of bruises and scars along the way." To avoid the Indiana problem, Kosty said, be specific on how many test-takers a contractor must be able to accommodate at once and at what speed. He knows what it's like when overloaded servers deliver tests at a frustratingly slow pace or not at all. "The one that really gave me a lot of gray hair was when the servers went down or the test suddenly wasn't available. If a classroom full of kids are getting ready to test and that test isn't functioning properly," it's unacceptable, he said. Now, he said, "It is the test vendor's interest to have zero failures. ...We tell them you can expect 20,000 concurrent users at any point in time, so you'll need to set up a server farm to handle that many with X nanoseconds of response time." But improperly configured local-area networks -- essentially the computers in one classroom and the connections between them and the Internet -- were the No. 1 source of trouble, he said. Oregon now has a 61-page manual spelling out minimum standards for the operating system, memory, screen size and processing speed on every computer as well as the equipment and configuration to connect them.

The state hired experts at regional education service districts who can talk frazzled school officials through rewiring a network, he said. "In some districts, the science teacher might set up a lab in one school and the math teacher may set it up in another," he said. "You can end up with a real hodgepodge. The more standardized you can make the way those are wired together, the more you're going to reduce your pain points." -- Betsy Hammond @chalku