Massachusetts schools are embarking on a two-year trial run of an online K-12 testing system that could replace the current MCAS. In the past few weeks, more than 1,000 schools have tried out the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers—the replacement test—with each school typically testing a couple of classrooms. While many commentators have hailed the PARCC as the natural next step in the merging of technology and education, others worry about the potential for socioeconomic disparities to be exacerbated by unequal access to technology. Those reactions are not mutually exclusive. Online testing is certainly the right direction for education, but it is important to compensate for socioeconomic gaps by funding schools that need the infrastructure.
The benefits of shifting to online testing are clear: superior illustrations for math questions, instantaneous—and less falsifiable—grading, the ability to monitor the exam’s progress in real time from a laptop, and more. Technology is particularly suited to standardized testing, and Massachusetts has the right idea in moving in this direction.
The introduction of the online PARCC to the high-stakes world of standardized testing is not without its pitfalls, however. Schools in lower income neighborhoods may not have enough computers to facilitate more than a few classrooms taking the exam at a time. Coupled with the new two-hour time limit, disparity in Internet speed and access to broadband could have serious consequences. Furthermore, students who use laptops or tablets in classes every day could have an edge over students who frequent a computer lab once a week. Schools may soon be choosing between investing in a math teacher and investing in a test-taking computer.
In order to ease the transition to the PARCC, Massachusetts should compensate for socioeconomic gaps by funding purchases of necessary technology and Internet access by schools that lack the necessary infrastructure. As we move forward in integrating technology with education, we must ensure that students of all income levels have the same opportunity to succeed.
The stakes are high. In Massachusetts, students must pass state standardized tests to graduate from high school, and school performance on the MCAS can determine which schools are subject to overhauls and possible state takeovers. Given the importance of standardized testing in determining the fates of students and even schools, differences in access to technology cannot be allowed to impede the performance of students and schools.