Log-out from such a vision

Despite fears of exam overload, a future that includes computer-based tests and learning facilitators should be resisted, argues Marion Gibbs

uch concern has recently been expressed about the state of our public exams system.

Never before have there been so many exams, such a shortage of examiners, such pressure on examination accommodation in schools and colleges, such logistical problems for the exam boards to overcome and such a loss of confidence in the accuracy (not to mention the quality or the standard of the content) of both the question papers and the marking. A solution may be closer than we think, although it may well create problems of a different kind.

My hunch is that all public exams will be reduced to a series of bite-size modules which will be taken on a computer in the manner of the current theory driving test and the numeracy test for trainee teachers.

At a stroke this abolishes the need for any markers, solves the problem of finding sufficient examination accommodation, addresses the issue of teachers spending time invigilating public exams and removes the need for the vast clerical edifices of the examination boards, employing thousands of assistants to check marks, sort papers, calculate expenses and attend awarding meetings. It also renders unnecessary the laborious process of producing and distributing certificates.

In future we may well have "anytime, anywhere" assessment. When students are ready they will log on to the system, complete the modular test within the specified time limit and if they are successful the computer will print out a certificate for them.

This also fits neatly into one vision for education in the future, where schools as we know them will no longer exist, but students will learn almost everything from computers, either at home (possibly supervised by their parents who will no longer be going out to work) or in community learning centres open 24 hours each day and staffed by technicians and learning facilitators rather than teachers.

Just as a shortage of examiners will lead to their replacement by technology so a simple solution to the teacher shortage is to reduce the need for teachers.

However, such computerised tests are incapable of dealing with answers in the form of an essay, or indeed any sustained pieces of writing at all. Moreover, practical and creative subjects would still have to be assessed in the traditional way.

Computers are most effective when dealing with a multiple-choice system. What sort of an education system might we have it were tailored to fit assessment solely by multiple-choice questions?

The second strand of assessment would have to be coursework with teacher assessment. This would enable students to show what they could do over a longer period and would test their research skills as well as their literacy and their ability to construct a cogent argument.

The disadvantages of such coursework assignments are well known: not only do they impose a heavier assessment burden on teachers but also original authorship is almost impossible to verify in a world with essays for sale over the internet.

Indeed, how would we really be sure that the person taking the computerised test was who they claimed to be?

Perhaps, the "brave new world" for public examining will not come to pass after all. I sincerely hope not.

Marion Gibbs is headteacher of James Allen's girls' school, London

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