“Ok, time is up. Please put your pencils down.” 

For many years those dreaded words were heard by millions of students as they took standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, AP, and Iowa Test of Basic Skills. These timed assessments of reading, writing, and math skills have become the hallmark of supposedly objective testing to gauge school performance. Perhaps more importantly, they have become a fundamental data point for college admissions. And, until now, they were always pencil and paper multiple choice tests. Alas, that era has come to an end, and in my opinion the outlook is not good for students.

In a recent story from Chalkbeat, Colorado’s source for in-depth education news, the recent decision by the College Board and a “group of teachers and administrators” in Colorado to switch to paperless SAT testing has been praised by the decision makers as a positive step forward in the testing industry. They claim the format will be more accurate and relevant in terms of assessing the knowledge and academic skills of high school students. However, educators, especially those versed in literacy studies, have their doubts. “What’s best for kids” should be the primary factor in any education-related decision. The recent decision is anything but. It’s all about profit for the testing company and ease of administration. 

The primary problem with the College Board’s and the state of Colorado’s decision to move high stakes standardized state testing to an all digital format is the simple fact that people don’t read as well online as they do on paper. Since the advent of the internet and the increased amount of digital versus paper reading, researchers have been studying whether people read differently in the two formats. The case against online reading has been growing in recent years, especially ten years ago when many states adopted Common Core standards and assessed students’ skills and knowledge with the now-maligned PARCC testing.

According to the Hechinger report, “studies showed that students of all ages, from elementary school to college, tend to absorb more when they’re reading on paper than on screens, particularly when it comes to nonfiction material.” That’s not surprising. English teachers encourage students to annotate text as a basic strategy for comprehension and understanding, but that’s not so easy online. Students say they prefer paper in any testing situation because scrolling up and down a page looking for information is not only time consuming, but actually distracting. Thus, in high stakes timed assessments where students’ reading skills are under intense scrutiny, it’s nothing short of irresponsible for education officials to ignore the implication that digital testing will provide less accurate results. When PARCC testing was first implemented, Colorado statutes mandated students be given the paper option. That should remain in effect, and anyone who cares about the authenticity of the tests should demand it for their child. 

Additionally, it’s shocking that digital tests are not available at a substantial discount, knowing all the paper, transportation, and labor costs are basically eliminated. Yet, that’s because the College Board is simply in it for the money. The business is a classified non-profit as an educational services company. That, of course, is laughable to anyone who has ever forked over several hundred dollars for their child to register for AP and SAT tests. Yet, in 2019 the president of College Board David Coleman pulled in a salary of nearly $1.7 million. And nine other College Board executives received annual salaries above $500,000. So, for a non-profit that company seems to be profiting quite a bit.

While many colleges and universities no longer require standardized test scores for admission, colleges will still accept the tests as part of a student’s application. Granted, the criticism of the test scores is that they most accurately reflect socioeconomic status, and affluent families have an advantage because their students can afford private tutoring and test prep. But to be honest, I’ve always felt the benefits of those services are greatly oversold. Besides, the College Board puts all their test prep materials online for free. So, while affluent students may have an advantage, access to prep is free to any student willing to put in the time.

Thus, while the tests are not going away, the decision to test digitally should. Rather than students putting their pencils down, I certainly hope the families of Colorado put their foot down and demand that their students be allowed to pick their pencils up.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com