Provincial tests for Alberta students in grades 3, 6, 9 and 12 will all be taken online within two years, Alberta’s education ministry says.
To do it, the Alberta government is spending $12.6 million to write its own provincial exam software, and dispensing with the Quest A+ system that crashed while 8,000 students attempted to write diploma exams in 2015.
“I think a computer would be a good idea,” said 15-year-old Vivica Addo, who wrote Grade 9 provincial achievement tests last month.
Instead of juggling exam booklets, papers and multiple choice question sheets on her desk, it would have been easier to toggle between computer screen windows, she said.
Addo types faster than she writes, which would leave her more time to review written responses, and give her a chance to edit text without crossing words out, she said.
Already, the education ministry uses new software, called SLA Application, for administering the student learning assessment to Grade 3 students. After piloting the program for three years, Education Minister David Eggen said SLA tests are now optional for Grade 3 teachers across the province.
Some schools still use Quest A+ for written answers and essay questions.
While the Quest A+ system can handle about 4,000 students writing tests simultaneously, the new SLA Application has succeeded with more than 6,000 simultaneous test takers, said Lindsay Harvey, Eggen’s press secretary.
Grade 12 diploma exams are expected to be available on the new SLA software in November 2018, Grade 9 provincial achievement tests in January 2019, and Grade 6 provincial achievement tests in June 2019, Harvey said in an email.
Pencil and paper tests will still be an option for students who want them, she said.
Jacob Dunn, who just graduated from Harry Ainlay High School, said he prefers taking multiple choice exams on paper.
“I highlight, draw, cross stuff off, underline, etc., and I cannot do that on a computer,” he said.
The universally available digital formats will coincide with the re-introduction of a written component to the Math 30 diploma exams, which Eggen brought back in response to concerns about sliding math scores.
In 2013, the former Progressive Conservative government announced all diploma exams would go digital by 2017. Software trouble and limits on schools’ internet bandwidth delayed those plans.
The government needs to ensure it invests in bandwidth for schools across the province if the transition is to succeed, said Tim Cusack, assistant superintendent of learning services innovation for Edmonton Catholic Schools.
Edmonton Public Schools is still looking into the implications for the district, a spokeswoman said in an email.
The education ministry is also eliminating rigid schedules for provincial achievement tests next year. The minister was spending too much time signing requests from schools that wanted to give the tests at different times or dates, Harvey said.
Schools will have a one-week window to administer written tests in Grade 6 and 9, and a three-week window for machine-graded multiple chogice exams.
To prevent students from telling friends what’s on the test, most Edmonton Catholic students will write the exams at the same date and time, Cusack said. Both Catholic and public school districts appreciate the new flexibility.