Do Clickers Beat PCs For Testing Students?

Handheld devices typically used for informal polling and quizzes get attention as an alternative for digital testing, following online testing failures in several states.
Umpstead said it's not his role to recommend technology options, but he does oversee programs to help school systems prepare for the network and system demands of online testing. Although Michigan schools are already close to meeting the minimum technical criteria laid down by the testing consortiums, one of his concerns is to plan for excess capacity to minimize the likelihood of the kind of system overloads that occurred in Indiana. Policy makers in his state and others eventually want to deliver standardized tests online, so before Turning could play a role in high-stakes testing it would have to be approved by them as an alternative, he said. Test publishers would also have to support the use of the device.

Meanwhile, Umpstead said he would be interested in promoting further evaluation of the usefulness of the devices but does not currently have funding to do so.

Wendy Zdeb-Roper, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, said the members of her association are also interested, partly because "there's a lot of concern about schools not being ready with their bandwidth" for online testing.

Both Umpstead and Zbeb-Roper said their interest was not only in high-stakes testing but the potential for the devices to be used in more routine assessments, such as the quiz a teacher might administer at the end of a day's lesson. "There are both short-term and long-term possibilities here," Zbeb-Roper said, meaning the clickers could be both a "stopgap" solution on the way to online testing and a tool for "daily formative, common assessments."

Richard Mayberry, a former teacher who now works as a technology coach for the Lapeer, Mich., schools said it strikes him as unrealistic to expect that schools will be able to provide all the computers and all the bandwidth for fully online testing. In the pilot project he participated in with the Turning clickers, there was one small glitch where a student's data wasn't transmitted correctly, but it was still stored on the device and available for upload. "It's got that redundancy in it, and that's comforting," Mayberry said.

From the student's perspective, the experience was "pretty much the same" as a traditional bubble test, although some rated it an improvement, Mayberry said. "It certainly wasn't any worse than paper and pencil," he said, and for the test administrators it was better because they got the answers immediately.

Rooks acknowledged Turning must fight the perception that clickers are boring, old technology, soon to be made obsolete by the bring-your-own-device trend in mobile technology. Yet students who have phone batteries die or their mobile Internet connections fade halfway through a test might want to learn to have a little more respect for the lowly clicker, which can be delivered fully charged and need only enough wireless bandwidth to connect to a computer on the other side of the room.

When it comes to test technology, boring is good. The kind of excitement they had in Indiana is just what you don't want.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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