As another wave of online testing problems plagues Tennessee schools, one of the solutions proposed by state legislators — go back to paper exams — is a stretch for a state that has invested millions into electronic exams.
In short, reverting to pencil-and-paper would be akin to ordering iPhone users to go back to flip phones. It almost certainly won’t happen.
Two Memphis-area state lawmakers want to ban the online version of TNReady starting next school year until the state comptroller determines its problems are “fully and completely fixed.” Another lawmaker says local districts should be able to choose between paper and electronic testing.
Their motivation springs from this week’s technical problems with TNReady, just two years after a statewide online collapse prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to cancel most state testing that year.
Despite the frustrations, here are four reasons why it’s unlikely Tennessee will go back to paper testing:
Superintendents think they’ve gone too far to turn back now. Maryville Director of Schools Mike Winstead cautioned against rash decisions in the heat of the moment.
“When things like this happen, it’s easy to overreact,” he told Chalkbeat. “But we’ve come too far. We know that online testing is the future. If we turn back, it will take a long time to get back to where we were.”
School systems and counties have poured millions into infrastructure and devices, added Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.
“We don’t want to back up. We want to get it right, though,” he said.
Paper is more time consuming. With online testing, “we can get test materials [and scores] back or to folks much quicker,” McQueen said this week.
Preparing paper tests requires hours of sorting and labeling exams. And if the materials arrive late, like they did for several districts this month because of severe weather at testing company Questar’s printing center in the Northeast, the time crunch is especially stressful.
Granted, a top-notch online system that protects against cheating and hacking could be more expensive than a paper version, said Wayne Camara, an ACT research chair with test security expertise.
“The issue of cost is relative,” he said. Multiple versions of computer tests are necessary to help safeguard against cheating, especially via social media.
“If you’re having to produce 10 or 15 forms of a computer test, most likely it’s not cheaper.”
If Tennessee switches back to paper testing, it will be one of few states nationwide. A recent analysis by John Hopkins School of Education lists 11 states that were still using paper tests in 2016 for elementary students. For middle schools, it was nine states.
Nearly across the board, those states with no experience with online testing did worse in national online testing.
Read more about Tennessee’s most recent performance on the Nation’s Report Card.
There’s security issues with paper, too. The alleged cyber attack on Questar’s data center Tuesday sparked a statewide outcry, but switching back to paper won’t eliminate security issues.
“Both digital- and paper-based testing are certainly susceptible to cheating,” said Camara, the testing cybersecurity expert. “I don’t think anybody would say that there’s a significant reduction of security measures or cheating with computers. It’s just different.”
One of the largest state test cheating scandals happened in Atlanta with paper tests, when principals and teachers changed student answers. That’s much harder to do online.
Jacinthia Jones and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.