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Exams get an online answer

Neil Munro talks to Ron Tuck as the Scottish Qualifications Authority meets in Edinburgh today for its annual conference.

SCOTLAND'S exam chiefs are embarking on a major drive that could modernise assessment out of all recognition and ease the burdens on schools in the process.

Ron Tuck, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, believes that "assessment will change more in the next five years than it has in the last 100 years. The way pupils sit exams now is, by and large, almost the same as it was when the Highers were introduced in 1888.

"Technology will revolutionise that, partly because it can and partly because of the increasing pressure to make assessment more flexible - pressure from the further education colleges, for example, who want assessment almost on demand."

Nonplussed by the teething problems it has acknowledged over its new IT system for this year's exams, the SQA plans to begin work on expanding its assessment bank with a huge computerised database of exam questions. These will have been pre-tested which means that once a question or paper has been sat by a group of pupils the level of difficulty is known.

"The advantages are enormous," Mr Tuck says. "It would cut down considerably on the work involved in setting questions and have the major benefit that the questions will be pre-tested.It would also allow predetermined pass marks. But there would be no question of any threat to standards."

Online assessment would be the next major step, Mr Tuck suggests, although this raises major issues such as whether some candidates might do better on paper. It would also depend on the "connectedness" of schools and exam centres.

The ultimate goal will be computer marking. Experts now say this is much smarter than it used to be when computers could only really cope with multiple choice questions. "Once you get to computer marking," Mr Tuck comments, "the distinction between internal and external assessment disappears. If a pupil does a piece of work on a computer and the computer marks it and sends it to us for certification, is that internal or external ssessment?"

Internal assessment by teachers of the work of their pupils is turning into one of the most contentious flashpoints affecting the Higher Still programme, mainly as a workload issue, despite the fact that it has operated peaceably at Standard grade level for years. Mr Tuck says: "It may be that, if internal assessment continues to be the bugbear in the system which it appears to be, computer marking is the way round it."

But the SQA is nowhere near that stage yet. As Mr Tuck puts it: "It's a voyage and we don't know where we will end up. But we are sure this is the direction in which we are going."

The exam industry is not, of course, confined to Standard grades and Highers - nor just to secondary schools. There continue to be unresolved questions surrounding 5-14 assessment and workplace assessment, with change the one certainty.

Mr Tuck was cautious about the outcome of the Scottish Executive's current consultation on the future of assessment in primary and early secondary. "We don't wish to be seen to be pushing external assessment although, from our point of view, external tests are the most cost-effective way of delivering national standards - particularly if the tests can be drawn down using IT at a time of the teacher's choosing."

The SQA also continues to wrestle with the reverse problem of internal assessment in schools - external assessment in further education colleges. "There is a fear in the colleges that potential students, many of whom did not do well at school and for whom exams are a hurdle too far, could be deterred," Mr Tuck, a former FE lecturer, acknowledges.

The SVQs themselves, of which there are now some 680, are continually being reviewed to make them more employer-friendly. At present there are only 40,000 SVQ enrolments a year out of the whole working population. The SQA is piloting a more flexible approach so employers are not put off by the cost, Mr Tuck says.

This could take the form of a part-SVQ with perhaps some off-the-job elements. "Like everything else we do, it's a case of giving our customers what they want," he adds.

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