The Nation's Report Card Goes Digital

Guest post by Dr. William Bushaw, Executive Director, National Assessment Governing Board. Bill Bushaw is Executive Director for the independent, bipartisan National Assessment Governing Board ( that was established by Congress to set policy for the Nation's Report Card. The Governing Board works closely with the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which administers the NAEP program.

In 2017, the Nation's Report Card, also known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), will complete its transition from pencil and paper assessments to ones given solely to students using digital tablets. This transition paves the way for many exciting improvements.

For almost 50 years, NAEP has made objective information about student achievement available to educators, policymakers, and the public, providing essential data in evaluating the condition and progress of American education.

NAEP assesses a representative sample of students across the nation, including students who attend charter and private schools. Students are randomly selected to participate, and only spend about one hour taking a portion of the NAEP assessment. This information documents student achievement at the national, and in some cases, at the state and local levels. However, NAEP cannot report individual student scores or school results.

Due to its high quality, the Nation's Report Card is commonly referred to as the "gold standard of student assessment." Detailed information about the assessment is available at

NAEP assessments measure a variety of academic subjects including mathematics, reading, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography, the arts, economics, and most recently, technology and engineering literacy. Each NAEP subject is administered periodically, with reading and mathematics assessments given every two years, providing the nation with ongoing student achievement updates.

The Transition to Digitally Based Assessments

All of us have taken pencil and paper tests and are familiar with selecting an answer for a multiple-choice question or providing a short written response for a fill-in the blank question. These approaches can be used whether the test is given using a pencil and paper approach or administered digitally using a laptop computer or tablet. However, a digital environment provides many additional benefits, significantly improving the capability of the assessment.

For example, a digitally-based assessment permits questions to be asked using multimedia techniques, i.e., audio and video. Using multimedia, a question on the science assessment can ask students to virtually design and conduct an experiment, then report and analyze the results. A U.S. history assessment question can display a video clip of a presidential speech for students to analyze, or interactive maps can be used to better assess geography skills. These same possibilities apply to all the academic areas including mathematics and the arts. And there are other tools available for students taking a digitally based assessment such as a stylus to make notes on the computer screen, and pop up calculators to use when appropriate.

Equally important, a digital environment is more inclusive for students with disabilities. For example, the font size can be increased or the question can be read aloud using a text-to-speech application for students with visual disabilities, and text-to-speech can also be used for students with reading disorders like dyslexia. These more seamless accommodations will provide educators, policymakers and the public a more inclusive picture of student achievement nationally.

Scenario-based Tasks

One of the most advanced digital assessment approaches uses scenario-based tasks. These tasks use videos and interactive graphics in asking students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills to solve problems in real-world situations. Scenario-based tasks can take between 10 and 30 minutes to complete and can assess a variety of skills within one "scenario," including communication and collaboration skills. Importantly, these tasks are challenging and rigorous but at the same time, engaging to students.

Are you curious to know more about scenario-based tasks? They were used extensively in the newest NAEP assessment that measures 8th grade students' technology and engineering literacy skills. Four of these tasks are available for anyone to take. Just go to (

Extensive Research

Transitioning NAEP from pencil and paper to digital assessments has been researched and planned for more than 10 years. Throughout these trials, measures were taken to ensure that the computer laptops and tablets work and are easy to use; privacy of student answers is ensured; and that the questions are reliable and valid, two important considerations when developing an assessment. Further, extensive research is in place to ensure that the transition from using a pencil and paper approach to a digital approach will be seamless, maintaining what's referred to as trend data to know if our nation's students are making academic progress over time.

The Nation's Report Card is the country's key indicator documenting the progress that has been made in improving student achievement. Over the years, NAEP has led the way in innovating better approaches to measure and report student achievement. The transition to digitally-based assessments, particularly using scenario-based tasks, is the most recent example of the Nation's Report Card's commitment to quality and innovation.

Dr. Bushaw's post is based on his lecture at IEL in November 2016. The AERA/IEL Education Policy Forum, launched in 1983, is a monthly lecture series featuring renowned scholars and practitioners focused on salient issues in education policy. To get on the mailing list for the Washington DC-based series, please email