9 things educators should consider before pursuing online assessments

Commentary:'s Stacey Pusey says that even in today's digital world, moving assessments online is not an automatic decision.
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Even in today’s tech-heavy environment, moving to online assessments is not a given.

This was the central message of a recent webinar hosted by and led by Glenn Robbins, superintendent of Tabernacle Township School District in New Jersey, and Donna Wright, director of schools for Wilson County Schools in Tennessee.

Robbins proposed several key questions leaders should ask before even considering online assessments:

  • What is the experience we’re trying to create?
  • What is our curriculum?
  • Where are we going with the curriculum?
  • What are we using for assessment right now, why are we using it, and how could it improve?

She said leaders should frame the potential value of online assessments within the context of a school’s curriculum.

Wright said leaders should also think about how online assessments can affect a school’s culture, teaching and learning.

Most importantly, the new assessments must fit into the district’s strategic plan, she said, meshing both with the school’s overall goals and financial commitments.

The Consortium for School Networking maintains a list called Nine Key Recommendations for Leveraging Online Assessment Capability and Capacity. Wright and Robbins shared their perspectives on the list and how each item affected their own transitions to online assessments:

1. Create and sustain a cross-functional strategic planning team


Wright and Robbins said their schools had a lot of silos, not just edtech and instruction, that needed to come together. Administrators also needed to understand how their specific skill sets were necessary to the transition process.

Leaders should also bring parents in early during these conversations. Without support from parents, especially in this era of opting out of testing, the initiative would face significant obstacles.

2. Ensure ongoing funding

Tech programs aren’t “one and done,” and administrators must recognize they can’t predict some of the program’s future costs. Wright said leaders should change how they think about their funding and consider including line items for accountability and assessment into the budget.

3. Embed technology in instructional practice


If students are going to be tested with technology, then they need to be learning that way on a regular basis. Robbins said this means that principals and superintendents need to understand whether their students have access to technology at home. Do they have reliable Wi-Fi? Do they have a device they can use at home? If not, how can the school help? Finally, school leaders need to model tech use to their teachers and show that the administration is committed to using tech for education.

4. Invest in sustained professional development

The presenters agreed that there are always excuses to limit or avoid professional development, especially limitations on time and money. But without effective professional development, leaders are setting up their teachers to fail, the speakers said.

5. Build and maintain a robust infrastructure

Obviously, if a school is dependent on online assessments, the school’s connections and devices need to work. Before committing to online assessments, schools need a “tech reality check” on what their current systems can handle and what they can realistically afford, upgrade, and maintain. Most importantly, the word “done” should be removed from everyone’s vocabulary. Maintaining online assessments and the systems that support them is typically a long-term ongoing project.


6. Select devices strategically

Devices and programs that work well for second graders might not work for tenth graders. But Robbins said that devices aren’t as important as students’ abilities to explore them and become comfortable using them. Whatever device students will use in their future careers probably hasn’t been invented yet, so schools should focus on literacy across devices.

7. Communicate often and thoroughly

Be transparent, explain what’s happening, but don’t brag, said Robbins. Nothing that happens in school should surprise a family when the child comes home.

8. Consider logistics


Wright said her logistics hinged on her district’s detailed strategic plan, which provides administrators with a step-by-step roadmap that includes their learning management system,  a decision to include online access to texts, and a gradual expansion of grade levels.

She said her district also uses data walls, a tool used to track, display and discuss student progress. Wright said data walls allow “everyone from the teacher to the student to the family understand what we are able to do with the technology and how it transfers to that learning to something that’s immediate.”

9. Use assessment data effectively

Leaders shouldn’t rely on teachers knowing how to use and share the data with students and families. Robbins said that his schools make time to talk about the data among the staff, and the teachers are having regular conversations with students about what the data means to them. Wright added that part of the conversation is making sure that assessments aren’t viewed as punitive but as tools to show students and families how the child is growing.

In fact, Wright said that the one thing she would have done differently in her own district is to move more slowly and get the whole school community involved in the transition from the start.


“I made some assumptions that everyone would be agreeable and would support the initiative, and that’s simply not the case,” Wright said. “Also, be aware of the critics and make sure that you meet with them and understand what their concerns are because, again, it only takes a few negatives to really disrupt a good practice.”

About the presenters

Glenn Robbins is superintendent of Tabernacle Township School District in New Jersey. His passion is harnessing a school culture that thrives on design thinking skills, innovative digital spaces, high caliber professional development, exponential thinking, BYOD/1-to-1, and makerspaces. Glenn encourages all students to have a voice, not only in building a school culture, but also in designing student led courses. He was named as a Digital Principal of the Year by NASSP for exhibiting bold, creative leadership in his drive to harness the potential of new technologies to further learning goals for staff, students, and the school community. Glenn has been recognized by numerous organizations for his innovative technology implementation methods and has been a featured speaker at numerous events across the globe. By empowering students and staff to have a growth mindset through design thinking, while implementing digital tools, we better prepare them for the profound shifts that they will encounter in life.

Dr. Donna Wright began serving as director of schools for Wilson County Schools in Tennessee in 2014. Under her guidance, district-wide academic performance has significantly improved; the district is undergoing the largest school building program in the history of the county; a concentrated emphasis on early literacy instruction is a focal point; and college and career readiness is a hallmark in middle and high schools. She has worked in public school education, K-12 and higher education for more than 36 years. Dr. Wright holds a doctorate in leadership studies from the University of Tennessee, has earned several awards, including the Women of Achievement Award and the UT Educators Hall of Honor Award, has authored several articles in educational publications, and continues to serve as an adjunct professor at various institutions of higher learning.

About the host


Ann McMullan is a 34-year veteran educator who served as the executive director for educational technology in the Klein Independent School District, located just outside Houston, Texas, until September 2013, when she and her family moved to Los Angeles. For 16 years Ann led the team in Klein ISD that provided professional development on technology and 21st century instructional strategies to more than 4,000 professional educators serving more than 50,000 students. During that time Ann also co-chaired the Texas Education Technology Advisory Committee which developed the Texas Education Agency’s Long Range Plan for Technology, 2006-2020.

Today, she is based in Los Angeles, working as a public speaker, writer, and independent education consultant focused on supporting leadership, visioning and planning to meet the needs of today’s students. She is a frequent presenter at state, national and international education conferences. Ann serves as project director for CoSN’s Empowered Superintendents Program. She serves on the board of PowerMyLearning Los Angeles and on the advisory board of Project Tomorrow. In the fall of 2016 Ann co-authored and published Life Lessons in Leadership: The Way of the Wallaby.

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The edWeb webinar referenced above, co-hosted by CoSN and and sponsored by ClassLink, can be found here.

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