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ISTE’s membership magazine, Learning & Leading with Technology (L&L), features practical ideas for using today's digital tools to improve learning and teaching and for appropriately integrating technology into classrooms, curricula and administration.

Issue: May 2014

Point/Counterpoint: Should Students Use the Internet while Taking Tests?

Feb 5, 2013, 14:21 PM
By James Cash and Jeffrey Starr

Some might argue that whether or not you allow students to use the internet during testing depends on the goals of the test and what you are testing. In my view, it should not matter what the test is asking of the learner; students should be allowed to access internet resources while taking any test. Doing so would force the test designers to move beyond asking for plain facts, demonstrations of simple skills, or basic understanding of concepts. For example, a teacher might design a history test to assess whether students know historically significant dates, locations, figures, causes of wars, outcomes of treaties, and so on. But such a test would lack any assessment of students’ ability to effectively criticize a treaty or judge the quality of a historical document.

I believe that higher-level thinking skills, such as critical analysis, idea synthesis, or delineation of evaluative arguments, are more worthwhile educational goals than memorizing names and dates. Instead of forbidding the use of internet resources during assessments that ask for facts, we should encourage it. Those who are concerned that students will simply find answers to the test online trust neither the learner nor the purpose of learning. It is not what you know that matters; it is what you can do with what you know that matters. Good educators want to see the quality of thinking students are capable of more than the quantity of facts or definitions that they can memorize.

There are enough resources out there (such as, as well as the instructor’s own critical-thinking skills, to detect if a student has simply cut and pasted
an answer or reworded someone else’s thinking. I am not so naïve to believe that there is no place for these tools in a busy education community. But I think that forbidding the use of online information during learning and assessment diminishes the authenticity of the task.

When, as adults, we need to solve problems, create solutions, be critical, or attempt to explain something, we use internet-based resources as a matter of course, and we use them critically, strategically, and effectively to complete the task and move forward. Why would we deny our children this capability during their education when it is so essential in the real world?

—James Cash is an instructional technology resource teacher with the Peel District School Board in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. He credits Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas as inspiration
for a lifelong interest in ed tech and cognitive psychology. Follow him on Twitter @cashjim.


At this time, giving students access to the internet during testing is like leaving the answer key to the test on your desk and then leaving the room. It creates an irresistible temptation to students to merely look for the answers rather than coming up with the answers on their own. It is bad enough that math students in high school feel like they need a calculator to multiply 11 × 36 (that’s 396 for those who didn’t learn your multiplication tables). Can you imagine students going to Google and searching for: “What is 11 times 36?”

Maybe my thinking isn’t very 21st century, but here we are in the 21st century, and I still don’t see the magical changes in education that I was promised during the 20th century. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re there yet. I keep hearing at conferences that we need to reassess the way we assess students. Maybe that would be great in advanced classes, but what about the basic classes? Can every class at every level be taught using critical thinking without needing to assess whether the students have gained the basic building blocks? The answer is no. The range of student skills at each grade level is still too wide to make a blanket statement like, “All high school students should be able to use critical thinking during tests instead of checking for basic facts.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love smartphones. I am jealous of the teachers who pull them out of their pockets in the hall between classes to check the weather forecast and their emails, Facebook posts, and Twitter feeds when they are supposed to be supervising the students’ change of classes. Keep in mind that these are professionals who presumably have learned how to focus while completing a task. If adults cannot handle focusing while doing something as simple as hall duty, how can you expect teenagers to not be distracted when using the internet on their phones? Assessments might take all day by the time they check all their new Facebook posts and finally sit down to use the internet as a tool.

My last major problem with allowing students to use their smartphones is that we cannot monitor or filter what sites they are viewing because they run through their cell providers’ internet and not the school’s. Good luck convincing students to use the filtered school internet when they have the unfiltered internet as an option. Cyberbullying during assessments, here we come.

—Jeffrey Starr has taught math in the Baltimore County Public School system since 2004. He is the full-time technology liaison and Student Government Association co-advisor at Dundalk High School in Maryland, USA.

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