The “Online Penalty” of Standardized State Tests
The virtual classroom has provided students a chance to continue their education during
the Covid-19 pandemic. While the use of computers and virtual classrooms has allowed
schooling to continue, the use of virtual standardized testing has faced numerous challenges.
Schools have been transferring their testing from in-person physical tests to online tests. This
change has resulted in lower test scores for those completing online tests compared to those
completing in-person tests, a difference seen most in children from low-income families, English
language learners, and students with disabilities.
While standardized tests are meant to test the retention of knowledge from the class,
online tests are also posing technological challenges. Students from low-income families do not
always have the same access to fast, reliable wifi and a working computer. In addition,
technological knowledge can vary from student to student. Using an online, virtual platform to
test hinders those students who are not as technologically skilled as their peers.
This type of roadblock students are facing has been termed the “online penalty” and refers to
the lower test scores seen for the same student if they test online instead of in-person. The
discrepancies in access to reliable technology is an important consideration when looking at the
differences in online versus in-person test scores.
Additionally, students testing in-person are given noise canceling headphones or a quiet
place to work. This setting has now become a luxury in the virtual classroom. Teachers cannot
ensure a quiet environment for students to test in when students are not in the classroom. This
often impacts students from low-income families where there is limited room and siblings who
are also doing their schooling in the same location and can lead to inequitable outcomes.
Students with disabilities are also put at a disadvantage with the online platforms. While
a student with a disability may have certain accommodations for in person testing, those cannot
always transfer to online forms. For example, some students require an adult to read the
questions to them, but in the online version the computer reads the question instead of an adult.
This loss of connection from a person-person interaction to a person-screen interaction is a
challenge for students to overcome. On top of that challenge, the online forms of
accommodations do not always work properly and can further put the student at a
How can schools continue to administer standardized tests to accurately test the
knowledge of their students if the tests themselves are biased? These tests are meant to be
objective, to see the potential of students and follow their growth. With these tests now online,
the objectivity has been lost and the students are faced with tests of technology
efficiency/access instead of their actual knowledge. Online standardized tests must be changed
to ensure a less biased way of measuring student performance or should be halted until they
can be done in person again. Students all over the country are learning new skills, skills not
taught in school prior to the shut down, it is important to keep perspective and remember they
are not behind, just learning something different.