University of Wisconsin Exploits OMR Capabilities for Handwriting

T he University of Wisconsin, Madison, is a large Midwestern research university with more than 40,000 students. The university's Testing and Evaluation Services provide support for the academic, research and administrative departments. Each year, the 15-member staff, headed by Dr. Allan Cohen, processes 300,000 tests, 300,000 course evaluations and 400,000 additional forms such as parking applications, surveys regarding handicap accessibility and research forms for various departments' studies. All of the applications use optical mark read (OMR) forms that are processed on an NCS OpScan 21 scanner.

OMR Opportunities

Expansion of services is critical to the ongoing success of the Testing and Evaluation Services department, according to Dr. Cohen. He believes implementation of technology such as imaging will enable the department to better deliver existing services and offer additional capabilities that will benefit the university. His specific requirements included a high-volume scanning system that captures handwritten responses for tests and surveys, image and optical character read (ICR/OCR) fields for general data collection and OMR data for continuity of existing applications.

To meet those requirements, the Testing and Evaluation Services department purchased a 5000i image system, the latest imaging product from NCS (Edina, Minn.). The 5000i allows intermixing of data entry methodologies such as handprint, machine print, OMR, bar code and Key From Image (KFI). The system's "Picture Perfect" technology, combined with gray scale processing, maintains the same high accuracy standards found in previous NCS OMR systems.

Cohen foresees many opportunities for the ability to capture handprint. One example is student placement testing. Each spring, the Testing and Evaluation Services department administers placement testing for all 16,000 incoming freshman registered at University of Wisconsin schools. The testing is conducted at 35 locations throughout Wisconsin and neighboring states. Students register for the placement testing using a scannable registration form. On the form, they identify the testing location most convenient to them. The forms are scanned and the information is imported into a student database. "Our plan is to revise the scannable registration forms so we can electronically read handprint and more efficiently enter the data," says Cohen.

The department sends out letters to the students, telling them the date and location for their placement testing. The placement tests, created by the department, are shipped to the testing locations. Score sheets from all 16,000 students are processed by Testing and Evaluation Services and stored on a central database. When advisors meet with students in the fall, they can access each student's test scores over the network.

"We have successfully scanned OMR score sheets for our placement tests as well as classroom exams on the 5000i system," says Cohen. "In the future we want to revise the score sheets so we can capture handprint. For example, on the score sheets, we can have students write essays, show their work in math or demonstrate foreign language skills. The 5000i system will allow us to capture that information and give advisors access to both multiple choice and short answer responses."

Even More Uses

Cohen cites other instances when the department will capture handprint. "One of the colleges has an alumni survey that requires OMR responses on one side and handwritten comments on the other. We'll be able to put all responses together in one file that can be read with a word processor," he says. "With the 5000i system we will also be able to capture handwritten comments on course evaluations," he adds.

Meeting peak demands and maintaining turnaround commitments also is important for the department. "Some departments have a huge influx of forms in a short amount of time, such as the financial aid department," explains Cohen. "By designing a new form, we'll be able to process these forms quickly." The system's processing speed ranges from 4,000 to 9,000 sheets per hour, depending on the recognition method that is chosen.

"We're also excited about the system's image scanning capability," Cohen relates. "Now we'll be able to secure image scanning business, and I think there is a huge market within the university for it. There are miles and miles of file cabinets around the university. I think we can reduce many of the contents of those files to an electronic format using the system's imaging capabilities. "Our intent is to set up one or two more shifts," says Cohen, "to run the system constantly and wear it out -- except that NCS d'esn't let machines wear out. They're always adding to or taking care of our system, and they respond very quickly when we need them."

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This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.