E-marking 'just a toy'

A prominent member of the exam authority's qualifications committee has dismissed ambitions to move to computer marking of some external exams by 2008 as "toys for boys" being promoted by enthusiasts.

Judith Gillespie, who is also development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, poured cold water on predictions made earlier this week that e-assessment was on track to replace the marker's red pen at the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

"It is very good that there are enthusiasts pushing at the frontiers but, in the kind of environment in which these innovations have got to be placed, it means that lots of other considerations have to be taken into account, such as whether this is technically possible," Mrs Gillespie said.

Reports at the weekend had suggested that the enquiry skills sections of Standard grade geography and history exams might be suitable for e-assessment. Computer software would recognise a range of potential short answers and mark them accordingly.

However, Mrs Gillespie warned this week that there was unlikely to be a wholesale move to electronic assessment, marking or results delivery in the near future.

This year, the SQA piloted online delivery of exam results to 400 candidates, online assessment of the multiple choice section of Higher biotechnology and limited online marking.

Mrs Gillespie said there had to be an awareness of what was possible. "Can the SQA cope if everyone hits at the same time, looking for their marks? This is the kind of gung-ho thing that comes from the 'toys for boys'

product. The reality is that there are a lot of other issues that have to be sorted out. It is not conceivable at the moment that someone could write a history or English exam on a computer and have it marked electronically."

Martyn Ware, business manager for the SQA project on computer-assisted assessment, told The TES Scotland that e-assessment was likely to be more suitable for internal assessment, such as NABs, than external exams.

Peter Peacock, Education Minister, is considering having only one post-16 external exam and Mr Ware predicted that e-assessment could therefore be used increasingly for internal assessment.

Over time, banks of e-assessment exams could be developed, Mr Ware said.

This would allow candidates to sit electronically assessed exams at different times of the year, just as driving test candidates sit the theory section of their test at different times.

Among the barriers to a wholesale move to e-assessment are the IT capacities at schools and colleges; the capacity of the SQA network; and the volume of electronic traffic generated at any one time.

E-assessment is dependent on language recognition software and is limited to short, factual answers. For maths courses, software has still to be developed that would give appropriate credit to a candidate who makes an initial calculation error, but then proceeds to use the right solution to work out the problem.

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