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Maneesha Johal, top, Lee-Anna Maharaj, right, and Amanda Ibe, lower left, work as a group on their EQAO standardized test prep at Lougheed Middle School in Brampton on May 16, 2013.J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

The agency responsible for measuring the reading, writing and math skills of Ontario students announced Wednesday that it will be going digital.

Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is poised to introduce an online version of its Grade 10 literacy test in November. About 1,200 students at 30 high schools will take part in a pilot version of the tests in the coming weeks, sitting at computers instead of at desks with a booklet and a pencil.

If all goes the well, the agency expects that the online version of the Grade 10 literacy test will be available across the province by 2016.

The other tests, Grade 3 and 6 literacy and Grade 3, 6 and 9 math, will follow over the next five or more years – assuming that schools can equip themselves with enough computers to administer the tests.

The move will do more than end an annual tradition whereby grade school children across Ontario use pencils to darken the bubbles of multiple-choice answer sheets. The EQAO says the move to digital will allow for a better, deeper analysis of students' results and create cost efficiencies in delivering the test.

Bruce Rodrigues, chief executive officer of the EQAO, said the agency expects to recover its initial investment of $6.4-million in the digital test in five years. The saving will come from not having to print and mail test booklets, or gather more than 2,000 markers in a central location to grade the exams.

It will also make cheating more difficult, preventing teachers and principals from photocopying paper test booklets and giving their students a sneak peak.

"We have all the confidence in the world it will be secure," Mr. Rodrigues said.

The challenge may lie in providing enough computers. Mr. Rodrigues said he expects some schools may lack enough computers for every student to take the test all at once, and that those schools will have the option of taking the pencil and paper test instead. Part of the pilot project will involve surveying schools across the province to see what proportion might struggle with this issue.

British Columbia already administers some standardized tests online, and Alberta is also considering a switch to digital, Mr. Rodrigues said.

"It will be more effective for us, bringing the test in line with the digital world that the students function in," he said.

Online tests are more interactive and allow for measuring a broader range of skills, according to Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education. "It's an important step," she said. "It's where kids live."

Her group is advocating for the province to adopt a broader notion of student success, and to begin measuring students' creative and social skills, rather than just literacy and numeracy.

The EQAO is an arm's-length agency of the Ontario government with annual budget of more than $30-million.

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