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Computers to make their mark on exams

Millions of GCSE and A-level scripts are to be marked on-screen this summer as the computerisation of Britain's exam system gathers pace, despite reservations from some examiners.

The privatised Edexcel board is leading the way with plans to use on-screen marking for three million papers, some 60 per cent of all pupils' answers this summer.

The plans emerged as the largest board, AQA, revealed that it is using staff in India to process exam answers for some of its GCSEs.

Some 198 Edexcel papers, including GCSEs, academic and vocational A-levels and general national vocational qualifications, will be scanned electronically.

They will then be emailed to examiners for marking. Marks are totalled by the computer and the annotated scripts viewed by the board for moderation.

At OCR, on-screen marking is being used for the first time on a large scale this year after the Cambridge-based board entered into a partnership with computer company RM. Some 500,000 GCSE and A-level papers are to be processed electronically.

At AQA around 400,000 papers will be marked on-screen.

The boards are backed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority which points to big advantages in computerisation. The technology ensures accuracy, they say, as all marks are totalled automatically.

It means the boards can track scripts as they progress through the system, and monitor examiners' work as they mark. It also potentially speeds up the examining process. Edexcel said it could have released its results a week early last August thanks to its e-marking trial.

However, this pilot project hit problems last year. Some 100,000 of the one million scripts due to be emailed to examiners had to be transferred to conventional marking after a computer system crashed.

Also last year, a study by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, parent body of the OCR board, revealed that senior examiners had reservations about the technology.

And leading private school headteachers have warned that scanning scripts and then getting examiners to mark individual questions will lead to dumbing down, reducing assessment to "a multiple-choice exercise that could be done by the proverbial monkey".

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said it was right for the boards to try to make best use of computerisation.

He said: "Our caveat is that they are using this technology to try to prop up a system which is already so badly overloaded it is creaking at the seams."

AQA this week angrily rebutted reports that the marking of history, French, German, and Italian GCSEs had been outsourced to India. Staff on the subcontinent have been recruited, it said, but they will not be marking papers.

Instead, they will help process sections of the exams that require a response of only a word or a number.

These answers are viewed by the Indian staff on the pupil's scanned script, entered into a computer and then the computer decides if they are right or wrong.


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