And you thought computers would make exams easier

Gerald Haigh

There are plenty of problems to anticipate, writes Gerald Haigh

Secondary schools are used to running external exams. They have a body of knowledge and wisdom stretching back to O-levels, CSE and before, which enables them to cope with the exponential growth in statutory assessment that's taken place in recent years.

The next big change will arrive in the form of onscreen, or online assessment: pupils sitting tests and exams in front of a computer. It is possible that those schools depending on past experience to see them into the new era will be taken by surprise. What's coming is of a different order.

To find out what it's like to run a statutory test on computers, I talked to Ian Cox, head of ICT at Bushloe high school in Wigston, Leicestershire.

Bushloe was one of 400 schools that last year piloted the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's onscreen key stage 3 test in ICT.

The most important message is that you can't start preparations for the test too early. This summer, Bushloe will be in the next pilot, involving more schools.

"We started early in January," says Ian Cox, in order to give candidates a level playing field because there is a specially written self-contained toolkit of applications, which children have to learn about before they do the actual test. Practice sessions are provided, but, says Ian Cox, it's important to bear in mind that, although all children come new to the software, that doesn't mean they're all equally able to cope. Care is needed to ensure that the "level playing field" principle really applies.

"The file-management system, and the email system are what most people are used to, for example. There are some people who use a wide range of software at home, and can transfer the skills easily," he says. "Others need a bit more time if they're not to be disadvantaged."

Another reason for starting early is because it's necessary to think well ahead about timetabling implications. The tests consist of two 50-minute sessions each, says Ian Cox. "You have to make sure of access to the computer suites. We ran it in one room, dividing the children into seven groups," he says. "So that's 14 sessions over a two-week period."

The problem is compounded by other factors, common to many schools. The length of lessons can cause headaches.

"Our lessons are 55 minutes," says Ian Cox, " So there was no chance of fitting in a 50-minute test. We had to allocate 14 blocks of an hour each.

We had to do a lot of re-rooming, and it was a struggle to make sure we had the time available." (Arguably, even an hour is tight, since technical problems could arise - the possibility of over-runs should always be kept in mind.) All the time the tests are going on, the rest of the school is getting on with its business - which includes the paper KS3 tests in other subjects, as well as the standard timetable for the rest of the children.

Remember too that computer hardware and software are never infallible: you could face a real test of leadership and teamwork. It's significant that Ian Cox is an assistant head, with a voice in senior management.

Potential snags apart, the schools that are alive to what needs to be done will be first to reap the clear benefits of this form of testing. Such benefits are seen in terms of pupil motivation, ease of administration, "test-when-ready" flexibility and the readiness with which results can be gathered and handled.


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Gerald Haigh

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