Exclusive: Technology could mean the end for GCSEs and A levels, predicts exams chief

Continuous computer-based assessment could 'displace' final exams, assessment boss predicts – but people would have to 'believe the machine'

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Technology could spell the end of public examinations, the boss of one of the country’s biggest assessment organisations has predicted.

Simon Lebus, the chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, said that technology already existed that allowed pupils to be tested on an ongoing basis through their computers while they were studying a course.

Students could eventually end up receiving their qualifications through such programmes, removing the need for traditional public exams taken at the end of a period of study altogether, he said.

Cambridge Assessment runs OCR, one of England's big three school exam boards, as well as Cambridge International, which provides qualifications in more than 160 countries.

In an exclusive interview with Tes, Mr Lebus was asked whether the future of exams lay with computer-based assessment.

“Funnily enough, when I joined Cambridge Assessment 15 years ago, I was told that this was the way everything was going to go but nobody could tell me when,” he replied.

“That’s still the situation. I think it will actually go that way.”

'No final exams'

He said: “Theoretically, you could actually envisage a situation in 20 or 30 years where people were no longer taking exams”.

“The interesting thing is that the technology exists now – the data-processing power and so on, conceptually at least – to allow learning material to be delivered on an ongoing basis in classrooms through technology.”

The same technology, he said, could have “interactive questions and formative assessment” embedded, which would make it possible to “monitor people’s achievement of certain competences and then certificate against it”.

“You could say, ‘Yes, well we know that they’re now competent in French, or they’ve mastered mathematics at that sort of level, and that they’re fit to go on and study at university.’

“You could actually see technology and evidence-gathering during the course of learning eventually displacing the need for final terminal exams.”

However, Mr Lebus said that moving to such a system would require people placing their faith in a technology-driven system.

“You have to have very high levels of trust,” he said.

“At the moment we live in a relatively low-trust society. People are very ready to contest exam results, but at least you can see how that all happens.

“If you had someone at the end of two years being told – after doing lots of stuff on the computer, and practical work and gathering evidence about their homework and all the rest of it – that they had passed or failed their equivalent of a maths A level, how ready would they be to believe the machine?

“The computer can end up disintermediating the human side of things, which I think is quite important.”

Money would be another potential barrier to doing away with exams, he suggested.

“For computer-based testing to work, you’ve got to have quite a sophisticated network, good bandwidth and all the rest of it," he said.

“That all costs capital and requires investment; whereas to repurpose a gym with a few desks and an invigilator, that’s pretty inexpensive.

“So you’ve got to be really convinced that there’s a compelling benefit in terms of the quality of the exam, the validity of the questions, the speed or security in order to make sure that you can do that on a universal basis.”

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