Home Online Work How computer-based GCSE and A-level exams could work

How computer-based GCSE and A-level exams could work

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Teenagers taking computer-based GCSE and A-level exams has become a matter of “not if, but when”, according to the head of the UK’s biggest exam board.

Colin Hughes, the chief executive of AQA, said it would be possible to introduce on-screen assessment in as little as three years, and that it would bring considerable benefits.

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But how would such a system actually work?

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Firstly, why are we talking about this now?

The Covid-19 pandemic – and specifically the chaos it caused to exam results – has prompted unprecedented scrutiny of our assessment system.

While GCSE and A-level exams are returning in 2022 after being cancelled for two years, a plethora of independent reviews and commissions are looking at whether the exams themselves are fit for purpose.

With most people spending much of their working (and social) lives on devices, many people think that public exams should have a digital element.

Mr Hughes said that if there had been some form of digital testing in schools, the system would have been “more resilient” when the pandemic struck. Instead of being totally reliant on teacher assessment, exam boards could have set pupils questions and moderated the results on a national basis, he argues.

There is another reason why such debates are emerging now. The former schools minister, Nick Gibb, was a traditionalist who appeared sceptical of technology and committed to pen and paper based tests. His departure from the Department for Education and the arrival of Nadhim Zahawi as Education Secretary has put assessment reform back on the table.

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How would it work?

Mr Hughes does not want to get rid of pen and paper based tests altogether. But he points out that subjects are already assessed in a range of different formats (for example, language students take oral modules), so why not have a digital element for most subjects? Students would take the tests in school, on school computers. Invigilation could be delivered in-person by teachers or with remote proctoring.

Could it really be done in three years?

He thinks so. Mr Hughes said this timeframe would allow for “two rounds of hardcore piloting”, and that it would give students enough notice. “You’ve got real issues about fairness, so you’ve got to make sure that the cadre of students that are the first to hit digital assessment have been taught completely in the expectation that that is how they are going to be assessed,” he said. “So in other words, they’ve known from the beginning of Year 9 that when it comes to them sitting their GCSEs, that bit of their GCSE is going to be digitally assessed.” To get pupils used to digital assessment, he also recommended first introducing it at an earlier stage – for example Key Stage 3.

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What would be the benefits?

Computer-based exams would allow “adaptive” tests, which tailor themselves to each student, getting harder or easier depending on how they answer questions. It would get rid of the need for “tiered” exams, which currently mean that students enrolled for the “foundation” paper in certain subjects are limited in the top grade they can achieve.

Because students would all sit slightly different exams, adaptive tests could eventually allow students to take them at different times during the year, rather than just in the summer. This would arguably improve fairness by allowing teenagers to take them on a “when ready basis”.

Some people say digital assessment would improve exam integrity – at the moment millions of exam papers have to be transported around the country and stored in schools under tight security arrangements. As well as being a huge logistical undertaking, exam seasons are frequently marred by papers being leaked.

What are the downsides?

As Mr Hughes admitted, online assessment would take on “one huge new area of security risk” – the possibility of IT systems being hacked or technology failing. However, he said these could still be managed: “It’s not so hard to effectively drop an assessment onto a targeted machine, disallow it from being opened until a particular moment in time, and then have it taken locally and uploaded.”

The transition would undoubtedly need investment to make sure all schools had the equipment and infrastructure to deliver the tests.

Do computer-based tests already exist?

Yes. Wales currently uses adaptive computer-based national numeracy and reading assessments for pupils in Years 2 to 9. Mr Hughes also pointed to the GMAT – an adaptive test used by American business schools, which is sat by hundreds of thousands of people each year.



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