Dr Roger Higton sums up his school's experiences of the new key stage 3 ICT on-screen test as being "very, very good".
"I have been a teacher for 30 years," he says, "and this is the first time students have come out of an exam saying: 'This test really showed what I could do'."
Roger is ICT co-ordinator at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire, where 300 students in Year 9 piloted the test in May. He says:
"I was concerned whether setting up something as large and complicated as this would work, and we made it clear to the youngsters that this was more of a trial for the school than for them. They were chuffed to be seen as pioneers, and their attitude was: 'Hey, we are trying something new, and in future years other pupils will benefit from our experience'."
Before the tests were downloaded, pupils spent time familiarising themselves with the interactive environment in which they would be working.
The test is set in a virtual world - the fictitious town of Pepford - and students have to help various local organisations solve problems. They employ a set of simulated software applications for tasks such as word-processing, spreadsheet building, email and web browsing. The applications are similar to those used in classrooms, but the software also records the student's actions, click by click, for assessment purposes.
Roger says: "In future, we plan to build into every one of our teaching modules the opportunity for students to work in the test-familiarisation environment, as well as the Microsoft environment we currently use."
Pupils did a timed practice test and received feedback on their performance before tackling the test proper, which they sat during their weekly lesson in the ICT rooms.
"They took to it really well, and I believe this is going to have a major influence on the way ICT is taught," says Roger. "The whole Pepford environment gave a seriousness to the project. Students were solving problems and, using the applications in an integrated way, they received instructions by email and could find things out by surfing the (simulated) net - even though they weren't actually on the net. No one said 'This has all been made up.' Youngsters are very good at role-playing games, and they may have been adopting the same kind of approach here.
"There were some who didn't like the test at all - they just couldn't get into it and needed more preparation. But the vast majority felt it had allowed them to show what they could do. The test was well designed; students had been allowed to be creative and put their own mark on what they did. A few tests didn't run properly - hardware or software glitches - so when the results came back in June, five or six disappointed students ended up without a result, and we will learn from that. But my main concerns had been about the tests descending into complete chaos, and that didn't happen."
Each student was awarded an assessment level, and Roger says that although results were "much better than I thought they were going to be", the levels were lower than those determined by teachers beforehand. "We have to decide whether to rethink our teacher assessments or pay more attention to the test and the environment, looking at ways to optimise pupils' performance.
As we become more experienced, I hope results will rise and become more comparable with English, maths and science. At the moment we have no performance data on KS3 ICT to measure our results against."
Although no detailed feedback came back on students' performance, he says this is planned for the future. "Because the tests track everything the student does, I hope they will be able to get really good, formative information - not just a level, but information on what they did well and those areas they need to revisit. That will be very helpful, no matter what they do at KS4. The test is also planned to be adaptive - it wasn't this year - and if a student is doing really well it will raise the stakes. If it can really challenge those who are doing well and support those who feel they are not getting much out of the examination system, then that is absolutely superb."
His students, who had a one-hour ICT lesson every week during KS3, sat the test in groups of 80 to 90 at a time - a limit determined more by risk management considerations than resources. "I am very lucky here - we have 500 computers and very strong technical support. I just wonder whether all schools would be able to work in the same way."
Roger says: "This test will raise the academic status of ICT in schools.
For the first time it gives us an idea of what it means to be good at ICT.
I believe we should be encouraging parents, children and teachers from other departments to see what is required by the test, because we have to raise the profile of information literacy. It is absolutely vital that all our youngsters are information literate and can use ICT."