As a part of an increasing national trend, during the 2016-2017 school year, more than 5,000 students in the U.S. took the SAT online rather than on paper. An article written for Education Week in the fall of 2017 announced that the College Board, the company who owns the SAT, will be expanding the number of online tests that are given during this school year and will hopefully increase the number even more next year.
In a nation where many standardized exams are given exclusively online, this news is not surprising. In my home state of New Mexico, for example, all state mandated standardized exams, the most infamous being the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, are given online. However, few exams are taken as often as the SAT and the College Board should have considered a number of factors more deeply before pushing to make the SAT a majority or exclusively online test. Among these factors, issues of equity are foremost.
A 2014 investigative article published by The Washington Post is one of many pieces published in the last 10 years that suggests that the results of standardized tests are largely more indicative of a student’s socioeconomic bracket than their intelligence. It isn’t shocking that students who come from more privileged backgrounds perform better on standardized tests, but there is reason to believe that offering these tests online would only widen the achievement gap.
For example, this spring, Tulsa Public Schools was given the option of giving all of its SAT exams online but chose not to do so because of failure to ensure equity. One of the main district’s fears, Director of Assessment Erin Lester explained to The New York Times, was that they would have been unable to give exams to incarcerated students.
“Some of the jails don’t even allow computers with internet accessibility,” Ms. Lester told The Times. “We wanted to be equitable.”
Even in jails or detention centers that have computers with internet, the number of incarcerated students fluctuates and ensuring that there were laptops for everyone would present a problem.
If a school district like Tulsa Public Schools worries about having enough laptops for its incarcerated students, this is indicative of a larger national problem of availability. School districts poorer than Tulsa’s struggle with accessing enough computers for their students in general. The College Board shouldn’t pursue exclusively online testing until it has addressed the lack of availability of computers in school districts, both in the nation and internationally. This goes doubly for another major college entrance assessment used by U.S. colleges, the ACT, which plans to administer all of its international exams online in the fall of 2018.
I am not suggesting that the College Board uses caution with online testing out of misguided technophobia. Don’t tell my professors, but I do a lot of my reading for class online and using ebooks. But there is a time and place for the internet, and there are times when pencil and paper are always going to be better than computers. As every humanities professor I’ve ever had has said―and as a junior English and History double major, I have had many―pencil and paper are better for concentration. Pencil and paper are not at the mercy of technological difficulties or blackouts. As a 2016 Education Week article shows, these lines of thinking transfer to test-taking, as well. Although students with regular access to technology did tend to perform well on the tests, once again indicating the issue of equity in this situation, most students still tended to perform worse on tests taken on the computer.
I’m sure that some well meaning people, perhaps those concerned with the environmental impact of printing out so many tests each year, are pushing for online testing. I’ll even give some of the College Board the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re not pursuing online testing out of a desire to make more money. Well, no, I won’t go that far. As with every other standardized test creator, I have no doubt that they’re in it for the money. However, well meaning or not, companies who own standardized tests need to think twice about implementing online exams or they’ll harm students’ futures more than they already do.