Tracking your test booklets using RFID

Last time I discussed where RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips are finding their way into schools. I promised I would write about RFID applications in testing next.There are at least three areas where RFID technology could help testing program administrators maintain fair and accurate programs: (1) tracking and counting test booklets or answer sheets, (2) verifying that the correct information regarding the test taker and the test form has been recorded on the answer sheet, and (3) maintaining information about test results and test taking status.

Tracking or accounting for test booklets or answer sheets

RFID technology is widely used in materials tracking and handling control systems because individual items may be counted and inventoried quickly and accurately. The obvious need in large scale testing is for the accurate tracking of thousands of test booklets and answer sheets. You can’t put a chip on a test booklet or answer sheet can you? Recent innovations in RFID technology say that you can.

To illustrate the need, consider the following actual occurrences:

1. In 2005, approximately 27,000 TAKS test booklets were lost. These represented .22% of all the test booklets. This would not be serious except that at least some test questions are usually reused in a later year and if these booklets were copied and used as study materials some students would gain an unfair advantage in a later year.

2. In 2003, 232 test booklets (3.3% of 7,000) were lost in New Mexico.

3. In 2005, a significant number of answer sheets were misplaced in Nevada. After a frantic scramble, the answer sheets were found and the affected seniors were awarded their scores that they needed for graduation.

4. There appear to be a large number of situations where exam booklets or answer sheets are misplaced or even lost. For example, Edexcel in the UK lost exam papers, the “Sats” in 2003 in the UK were stolen and offered for sale on the Internet, and in Jamaica this year the sixth grade tests were leaked.

As an illustration of the requirement to properly track the test booklets, consider the situation with Colorado’s Student Assessment Program (CSAP). As it was reported in the news, we read: “In preparation for the testing, administrators have spent hours counting and recounting exams, outlining strict rules for administering the exams to prevent anyone from getting an early peek, and aligning themselves with the proper procedures.”

Do we really want educators counting test booklets instead of teaching? RFID technology has the potential to handle this problem. If every test booklet is identified with an RFID tag and if every answer sheet has an RFID printed label affixed, an RFID reader could process an entire stack of test booklets and answer sheets in just a few minutes and determine if all the materials are present and which ones, if any, are missing.

I haven’t actually seen RFID chips used for test booklets, but I just renewed my US passport and it has an RFID tag embedded in it. I don’t know where the tag is, and I don’t think that I need to know. The key point is that most test booklets are similar to the passport. There is a cover and several pages that are stapled in the middle (at the binding). Affixing RFID labels onto answer sheets is potentially more difficult because the answer sheet needs to be processed through a scanner. However, RFID printing technology exists for affixing labels to documents. A search with Google using “RFID printing” brings up many links with vendors of solutions to create printable labels.

If RFID tags are embedded into the test booklets then the entrances to storage rooms can be fitted with RFID readers and any unauthorized removal of a test booklet may be detected. Similarly, if secure test materials are tagged with RFID devices when they are reviewed by standards setting teams we can be assured that none of the materials will leave the secured area in an unauthorized manner.

These are standard tracking and inventory control processes where RFID has demonstrated its value in other industries.

Verification of information

The other two main areas where RFID technologies might be applied in testing are in verifying that correct information is recorded concerning the test and in maintaining information about test taking status. I see a lot of testing data from public schools and other industries and nearly all of it contains errors. Often, test taker identifiers are recorded incorrectly. These errors require a lot of time to find and correct. But, if they are not corrected, individual students will be affected. RFID has the potential to help in this area, if we give students RFID badges. Even though we currently have systems for processing these data, I see enough of these errors in testing data to know that current technologies are not solving the problem.

Maintaining test results and status

If the students were issued a “smart card” (i.e., an RFID card that can be read and written), we could record on the smart card the student’s transcript and test taking status. Such a card could be beneficial in recording attendance during testing and in recording the test result. Although it’s not obvious that smart cards improve current testing practices in schools, I could see how the smart card might be beneficial in other scenarios, such as military testing. Smart cards are useful when you need to maintain information in a distributed, rather than a centralized, database.

Security concerns

Only time will tell whether RFID applications will bring improvements to testing, but regardless of the potential applications security concerns persist. If the chips are used to record testing results or identify secure materials, they need to be secured against unauthorized tampering. If the chips are used to access secure test materials, they need to be secured against unauthorized duplication. If the chips are used to identify test takers (i.e., by containing biometric data), they need to be secured against unauthorized retrieval. If the chips are used to confirm tests are taken properly (i.e., the test taker’s identifying information is transferred to the test result), they need to be secured against inadvertent data loss.

Dennis Maynes

Chief Scientist, Caveon Test Security

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