A COMPUTERISED "revolution" which will make exam marking quicker and more efficient will begin next year, says one of England's big exam boards.
Edexcel expects up to 40 per cent of the five million scripts it handles annually, including those for A-level and GCSE, to be scanned into computers and marked by teachers online from summer 2004.
The board believes new online marking could increase the speed at which teachers mark by 50 per cent, cut days off the time required to process scripts and reduce human error.
At present, in a system controversially described as a "cottage industry" by exam regulator Dr Ken Boston, pupils' scripts are sent by post to teachers' homes.
Teachers have to tally papers with candidate numbers and chase up missing scripts with schools. They also add up and check marks.
Some papers are sent to senior markers to check the marker is not over or under-marking.
When the scripts finally reach the exam board, further checks are made to ensure none is missing, and that the markers' arithmetic adds up.
Under the new system, glimpsed by The TES at the board's north London processing centre, all papers are sent to a special centre, where they are scanned on to a CD-Rom, which is dispatched by courier to an examiner's home.
The CD-Rom manipulates the scripts into a software package, so that the examiner only has to mark them against on-screen guidance before emailing them to the board. Marks are totalled automatically, the board can chase up any discrepancies with schools, and senior examiners get computerised access to the scripts.
Edexcel has spent pound;3-4 million researching the system, which it says was piloted successfully last November on past papers and on real general national vocational qualifications in computing last month. It believes running costs might be as low as pound;50,000.
The board also wants to allow schools to enter pupils for exams by secure email from next year to reduce the 30,000 calls it receives each month from teachers' enquiring about entries. They would receive electronic confirmation within 24 hours and be able to correct any errors online.
It has also launched online versions of key skills and adult skills tests (see story above), and is piloting computerised GCSE exams.
The board says Dr Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, was impressed. But he has emphasised the limits of the process, and there is no suggestion that exams should become multiple-choice tests to be marked by computer.
Jerry Jarvis, qualifications director at Edexcel, admitted there would be security risks. But he added: "Ultimately there are very secure systems out there, otherwise no one would bank online."
There will also be worries about the logistics of scanning millions of extra scripts on to computer. And the system relies on teachers having computers at home.
Other boards said they already have systems to enter pupils for exams electronically and were also working on online marking arrangements.