In order to produce learned, well-spoken alumni, IHEs nowadays need to assess the skills and abilities of students when they first walk onto campus. "No college wants to churn out people who don't know their subject," one software company president has said. IHEs already know the GPA and SAT score of a student, as well as what his or her teachers thought of them through letters of recommendation, but sometimes, freshman arrive with reading, writing, and math skills that are in need of remedial education.
That's where those pen-and-paper placement tests usually enter the equation. Now, however, paper tests are ceding to online assessments designed and powered by a handful of software companies.
Tom Ewing, spokesperson for Educational Testing Service (ETS), knows that college faculty members, who in recent years have been relegated to teaching essay-writing instead of delving into the world of ideas, decry students' writing abilities.
But, he says, "It's a problem not only in higher ed, but in business as well. Employers complain that a person out of college can't write, or perform even basic math. They are finding students are tacking in skills central to 'success."
PUTTING STUDENTS TO THE TEST
At Penn State University, 12,000 freshmen are tested each fall in English and math, and sometimes even in chemistry. Students take online assessments in an unproctored environment using LXR*TEST, created by logic extension Resources, a Georgetown, S.C., company that specializes in developing software tools for testing, certification, and licensure.
"The benefits are mostly for students," says Ralph Locklin, senior measurement specialist at the Schreyer Institute for Innovation in Learning at Penn State. "They can complete it at a place and time that they choose. In the past, tests were proctored and all students would be crammed together. Now, students can choose time or day. We take great pains to tell them to get a good fix on their ability."
Kirkwood Community College (Iowa), the state's third-largest college system behind Iowa State and the University of Iowa, cut class time by five minutes down to 50-minute class periods, so instructors welcomed Questionmark's Perception, according to Rich Edwards, professor of learning services. Questionmark, based in Stamford, Conn., created "Perception for Web," which is used to administer assessments using the internet or a school's intranet.
"A lot of faculty find an advantage in online testing," says Edwards. "Tests are not given in class, so there is more time for instructors to teach."
He says online testing is even more beneficial for students. "Students get a week's window to go anytime to the testing center, and they get an immediate score."
Kirkwood, which serves 15,000 students in a seven-county area in eastern Iowa, found many advantages in using Perception, a system Edwards considers extremely secure and convenient. He says that students attend classes at several different campuses, so taking a day out of their schedule to congregate at the main campus for an assessment is not easy. Instead, students go to the main campus for testing at their convenience.
The community college system has used the untimed Perception tests since 1998. Kirkwood administered more than 7,000 Perception tests on its main campus in 2004.
Edwards listed a number of benefits for using Perception: It produces a more efficient and effective testing environment, creates a high degree of security, removes the fear of Losing paper, obtains immediate scores, and provides a degree of quality control. Plus, "students like accessibility," he says.
Kirkwood also uses ACT's Compass to test incoming students on reading, writing, and math skills.
WebCT, a Lynnfield, Mass.-based provider of e-learning systems, helped the University of Alberta, Edmonton (Canada) pull off an efficient way to test incoming freshmen. …