Common Core Technology

By Lawrence Hardy

In the fall of 2010, more than 30,000 “Year 8” students in New South Wales, Australia, took an online science test that showed how far computer assessment had come in recent years and offered a glimpse of its extraordinary potential for the future.

Measured against the 1.6 million U.S. students who took the SAT last year, 30,000 test-takers -- even 30,000 test-takers taking the same test, at the same time -- might not seem like a lot. But this Essential Secondary Science Assessment was no SAT, and the technical challenges it presented were enormous.

Unlike standard “bubble tests,” this new generation of online assessments is seeking “to provide richer experience, more closely mimicking real-life problems than a pen and paper test could do,” wrote Wayne Houlden, CEO of Janison, the Australian company that created the test using the Microsoft Windows Azure software platform.

“Each task begins with a video that sets the scene for a real-life problem or situation from which a testable question is derived,” Houlden said in the Australian monthly Teacher: The National Education Magazine. A voiceover guides each student, asking key questions. Animation enables students to work on the problems, answering multiple questions as they progress. They can manipulate the information, explain their answers, and edit their responses.

It’s an innovative-sounding assessment, to be sure, but it would totally overwhelm a school district’s servers. Janison got around the problem with cloud computing, using 300 Web servers to store and manage the data through a process called “virtualization.”

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