How to ensure digital equity in online testing

The SAT will be moving online for students in the United States beginning in 2024. The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exam will be taken entirely online next year. Many other states already have fully online tests—and in response to the pandemic, graduate entrance and career certification exams have shifted online as well.

But as more high-stakes exams transition to an all-digital format, experts warn that students who are not as digitally literate as their peers could be placed at a disadvantage. As the trend toward wholly online testing continues, education leaders must consider how to ensure digital equity for the students taking these exams.

A study published in 2019 by Ben Backes and James Cowan from the nonprofit, nonpartisan American Institutes for Research found that students who took the Massachusetts state exam online performed worse, on average, than students of similar abilities who took the same test on paper. The difference was less dramatic for second-time test-takers, suggesting that familiarity with the digital format played a key role in the discrepancy.

“There may be systematic differences in students’ comfort level with (computer-based tests) depending on their access to computers in the home and at school,” the researchers wrote.

The differences were quite pronounced, equating to about five months of learning in math and 11 months—more than a full school year—in English language arts. Students from low-income families, those with disabilities, and English language learners were disproportionately affected.

Online exams use design features that might be unfamiliar to students who have less prior exposure to computers or the internet, the researchers noted. These include reading passages in text boxes that force students to scroll down to read all of the text, as well as drop-down answer choices, drag-and-drop item responses, and other interactive elements.

Familiarity with online testing is key

The researchers’ findings raise important questions about digital equity as more high-stakes exams transition to a fully online format.

One way that schools and colleges can ensure a more level playing field for all students is to provide plenty of opportunities for students to practice taking exams in a digital environment.

Familiarity with digital test formats is key, Backes agreed, noting: “There are some items that are unique to taking a test online.”

The College of Health Sciences at Alabama State University found that graduates who had performed well in the program were scoring lower than anticipated on board certification exams, which are given online. After reviewing the problem, officials determined that students’ lack of familiarity with computer-based testing was largely to blame. 

Many students admitted to the university’s College of Health Sciences live in rural areas of the state and haven’t experienced the same access to computers or reliable internet service as students from metropolitan areas. 

“We found that many students knew the material but became anxious when taking the board exam for the first time,” said Dr. Susan Denham, chair of the college’s physical and occupational therapy departments.

To prepare students more effectively, the college participated in a pilot study with digital assessment platform ExamSoft and decided that switching from paper-based to online testing would be the best course of action. By integrating the digital assessment platform into its programs, the college was able to boost students’ board exam scores significantly.

In fact, board exam scores among graduates of the physical therapy program have increased 18 percent since the college began using ExamSoft, while scores among occupational therapy graduates have increased 7 percent. Another benefit is that grading exams has become much faster and easier for faculty.

Exposure to online assessment has reduced students’ anxiety and ensured they are comfortable with the board exam format. “Students reported feeling less anxious and more prepared,” Denham noted.

If educators aren’t paying attention to digital equity, the integrity of online exam results could be called into question.

“If test scores are the main way we measure how much students are learning,” Backes concluded, “then we want to make sure we’re actually measuring what students know—and not just their familiarity with computers.”

Dennis Pierce