Computer Based Testing: The way of the future?

October 8, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Posted in uncategorized | 24 Comments

(authored by Brian Slocum)

When is the last time you took a standardized test that was not computer based? For most of us, it was most likely when we took the SAT during our junior or senior year in high school. Tests required for post-graduate studies, such as the GRE (Graduate Requirements Examination), MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) are all taken on a computer. Are standardized tests the only ones that that should be considered for computer based assessment? Can we find ways to integrate computer based testing into courses that are just normal parts of a high school or college curriculum? In some cases, we already have. We have seen a variety of tools such as Course Compass and MyMathLab which enable students to take online quizzes. Having increased access to computers nowadays allows us to use them in almost any environment. When considering computer based testing, the questions we must investigate are:
1) Why the shift from a paper and pencil based test to a computer based test?
2) Is there a significant difference between the results when someone takes a paper and pencil based test or a computer based test?
3) Are current paper and pencil based tests (such as the SAT) eventually going to be given on the computer?

There are numerous reasons for moving from a paper and pencil based test to a computer based test. One of the major benefits is that the software can automatically score the exam as it is being taken and then provide the students with their immediate results as opposed to a turn-around of several weeks. On standardized tests, this also alleviates the need to wait for the allotted time to pass before everyone can continue on to the next section. Once a student is completed with a section and feels that they have answered every question to the best of their ability, they are simply a click of the mouse away from continuing on to their next section.

Several studies have shown that there is little to no difference when comparing exam scores that test the same material, some of which are taken with a paper and pencil and others at a computer. In analyzing test results from an accounting course, Anakwe (2008) states

The study reveals that in three different accounting courses, there were no differences in student test scores between the online tests and the in-class tests. The study also revealed no correlation between a student’s gender or class and the student’s test performance.

Another study was conducted in which students actually took the SAT at a computer. They were given scrap paper and pencils but all answers were recorded one question at a time on the computer. Tools such as an on-screen calculator were provided. Interviewing the director of guidance for grades 6-12 in the district where this SAT was taken, an article from eSchool News (2001) states

Of the students who’ve taken this so far, I think 75 [percent] or 80 percent have said they prefer this to a paper and-pencil test.

This study was conducted in 2001, and 8 years later students are still taking the SAT at a desk with paper and pencil. Perhaps the College Board feels that the format of the test is fine in its current form and is in no rush to change, but it is something that must be considered as new generations grow up very familiar and comfortable with using a computer. Of course there are still disadvantages in this case. The SAT requires enough computers for the hundreds of students that take the test at one time at each location. This would require some heavy thought as to possibly restructuring the entire exam. Perhaps each test could be unique and offered more frequently so fewer students would take the exam at once, similar to the GRE. However, these should be viewed as modifications to be made that would improve the quality of the test, not disadvantages preventing us from adopting a new format. After all, the aforementioned study stated that the majority of students involved preferred the computer based test. If students are the ones taking the exam, shouldn’t we be listening to their thoughts on the matter?


Anakwe, B. (2008). Comparison of Student Performance in Paper-Based Versus Computer-Based Testing. Journal of Education for Business, 84(1), 13-17. Retrieved October 8, 2009, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 1580346501).

Schools try giving SAT via computer. (2001). eSchool News. Retrieved October 7, 2009 from



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  1. I agree with you about the advantages of the computer-based testing. Some of these advantages, as you mentioned, is that you can receive your scores of the test on the day you take your test. There is also one more thing I can add to that, on a traditional paper-and pencils test, every examinee sees the same or similar questions. But in the computer-based tests, the test items have been designed to meet content and difficulty specifications that allow for an equitable comparison of scores, and most of the test sections are computer- adaptive, which means that software will determine which questions to ask based on your performance on the previous questions. In this way, the test will constantly adapt itself to your level of ability. A correct response will be followed by a more difficult question, and an incorrect response will be followed by an easier question. Difficult question increase your score in a greater increments than moderate or easier questions. I believe this is a better way to assess the students.
    Unfortunately, there are also some important disadvantages to this kind of tests; people who are unfamiliar with computers may find the testing environment intimidating. While no computer skills are required, an unusual environment may have a psychological impact on your preparedness. In addition, you must answer the question in the order in which they are presented. You cannot skip a question and return to it later-or return to an earlier question to change your answer. This is a significant disadvantage because it eliminates the important test-taking strategy of answering the easier questions first and returning to the more difficult questions if you have time.

  2. I actually disagree. For me, I would rather take these tests with a pen and paper versus the computer. I know that we’re going through a technology boom and pretty much everything is shifting towards computers, but I am taking a more traditional stand on this.

    When you take a test with pen and paper, you can write all over the test. Everything from writing down notes, underlining or circling the important information and drawing diagrams that will help you come up with the answer are easy to do when you have scrap paper to write on. I’m sure they give you scrap paper during the computerized test to doodle on, but you can’t write something in the margins or underline words. You can’t even cross out what you think is the wrong answer. Not to mention, your eyes are constantly moving from a computerized screen down to the paper. I don’t know about you guys, but that takes a second or two to get my eyes adjusted. Not to mention to find what I’m looking for on the paper. And if you’re in a room with other people, you’re constantly hearing other people punching the keyboard. GRRR… That noise makes me nuts. I need a quite room without distractions and noise from computer keys makes me cringe.

    I know from experience that when I sat for my athletic training certification, we had 3 parts. The first consisted of hands on work that you did in front of a supervisor, the second was multiple choice questions and the third was when we were given case scenarios and had to highlight which answers were correct for that specific scenario. Definately the hardest exam I’ve ever taken, but I can’t imagine taking it now because it’s all computerized. I can’t believe they took the hands on part out of the exam because that seems really important. Also, I can’t imagine trying to go through these scenarios and what? highlight the correct answers? I don’t even know how they would do that? And 200 multiple choice questions in 3 hours on the computer? Wow, i’m glad I took this exam the old fashioned way. I don’t think I would be able to pass it if it was on the computer.

    Anyways, for as much as I don’t think computerized testing is for me, I do think Brian made some good points in regards to the advantages of using a computer. Those being that you can move from one section of the exam to the next without having to wait for the class to finish and how you can get your test scores back immediately. I think we can all agree that waiting for grades to come back is more nerve racking than actually taking the exam. My question for Russina is are the questions on each exam really different? Or are there the same questions just in a different order?

    Since we want to make our students comfortable and able to take an exam to their best ability, I think they should have the option on whether they take the exam with a pen and paper or on the computer.

  3. I agree with Elyse and Russina, computerized testing reduces alot of the test taking strategies available to students. Strategies like looking at other questions for help, skipping a difficult question and then coming back to it, and underlining/circling key words in the question. Furthermore, from my experience as a GRE teacher/tutor I’ve found that students often FAIL TO SCROLL to see the whole graph, chart, or question!! This is less likely to happen in a paper and pencil test.
    Furthermore, computerized testing limits the type and amount of extended response math questions. Even as a fairly tech-savy future math teacher, I am not fluent in typing with LaTeX (, or Equation Editor ( And, although these programs are great tools for typing math symbols the programs have limited usefulness and ease of use.
    Computerized testing does have some great benefits. My introduction to psychology offered computerized tests outside of class. This was especially helpful to me because I could take the tests ahead of class when I was ready to take them.
    Brian, you are absolutely right that we should be listening to the students who have to take these computerized tests. However, College Board and ACT are businesses who have an oligopoly ( on the testing market. In my opinion, their biggest goal is to make money, not to give students assessments that benefit their education or create a beneficial test taking experience for students.

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