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.

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