The shift from traditional paper and pencil to next generation digital assessment

Assessment is a general term for a broad range of processes for testing, measuring, and evaluating performance. Standardized, alternative, and self-assessment methods are used for the purposes of replacement, diagnosis of performance, and provision of formative and summative evaluation.

The National Educational Technology Plan (2017) states: “As technology gives us the capability to improve on long-standing assessment approaches, our public education system has a responsibility to use the information we collect during assessment in ways that can have the greatest impact on learning. This means using assessments that ask students to demonstrate what they have learned in meaningful ways. And students and parents know there is more to a sound education than picking the right answer on a multiple-choice question or answering an extended-response question outside of the context of students’ daily lives. All learners deserve assessments that better reflect what they know and are able to do with that knowledge.”

Click here for an infographic from the U. S. Department of Education (2017) on traditional vs. next generation assessments.  In the infographic, you will see how the shift from traditional paper and pencil to next generation digital assessments enables more flexibility, responsiveness, and contextualization. The table below provides some of the same information with definitions and expansion of terms and ideas.

Traditional Assessments Next Generation Assessments
Assessments were usually after the learning had occurred. Tests or quizzes were often given the next day or at the end of the week.
Assessments are embedded in learning. Assessments are a part of the lesson plan or curriculum unit. Assessments may be on-the-fly.
Limited – Very little or no user design, or universal design for learning available to students.
Universally Designed – Special features include the ability to increase font sizes and change color contrast, text-to-speech, bilingual dictionaries, glossaries, and more. These features can be embedded in assessments and made available to students, depending on what the assessment is measuring and identified learner needs. Seamless accessibility features embedded in technology-based assessments reduce the need to single out individual students for extra supports, providing an added benefit for students and educators alike.
Fixed Pathways Scenario: A student receives a grade and comments on a writing assignment. There is no opportunity to revise the assignment and the teacher moves on to the next lesson, hoping that the student will use the comments to improve his future performance.
Adaptive Pathways Scenario: A student receives feedback on the ungraded draft of his writing assignment. The teacher has asked the student to rewrite the assignment, giving him an opportunity to put her advice into practice. The learner has time to create new pathways.
In traditional assessments, feedback to the teacher or student can take time. For example, in paper and pencil standardized testing, the school and parents do not get the results for approximately four months.
With real time assessments, teachers and students get immediate feedback. The feedback can be used in class immediately or sent home to parents in real time.
Item Types
Graphic response, which includes any item to which students respond by drawing, moving, arranging, or selecting graphic regions
Hot text, in which students select or rearrange sentences or phrases within a passage
Equation response, in which students respond by entering an equation
Performance-based assessments, in which students perform a series of complex tasks

Below is a video of Dr. Frank Tiano and Dr. Jonathan Landman exploring PARCC testing with sample questions. PARCC testing is a form of next generation assessment. Another form of next generation assessment is called Smart Balanced. Whichever one your state or district chooses, they are both forms of next generation assessment. This video was made on the eve of the first trial PARCC assessment in Massachusetts (2014).

For more information:

National Education Technology Plan –


United States. (2017). National education technology plan. Washington D.C: U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology.