Edexcel has been piloting electronic GCSEs in geography, chemistry, physics and biology. They would be the first major high-stakes test to be offered by computer, Schools can download an exam from the board. Pupils then key in a password to enter the exam, which automatically closes down once they reach the end of their alloted time.
Geography and physics questions seen by The TES this week use the technology to offer types of questions which would not be possible in traditional exams. For example, candidates are asked to observe a diagram of a moving car, clicking their mouse once when it passes a "start point", and again at an "end point". After being told the speed of the car and the time between clicks, they are asked then to calculate the distance between the two points.
Multiple-choice and short-answers could be marked by computer only - longer answers will be marked by examiners.
Trials of the exams began last year as 1,300 pupils in England and Northern Ireland sat mock versions. A further trial next month will see foreign students in 10 countries sit on-screen versions of the international GCSE test.
Jerry Jarvis, Edexcel's director of general qualifications, said that if trials were successful, he was hopeful computerised GCSEs could be offered in some subjects by 2005.
However, although the board is confident that many schools now have the technology to run the exams, some issues surrounding comparability of standards with traditional paper-based exams remain to be resolved.
Launch of on-screen GCSEs would also need approval from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Ken Boston, the QCA's chief executive, believes computers represent the future for exams, but wants to consider all the implications before giving approval. Mr Jarvis stressed that technology would never completely replace paper-based tests. Students would perhaps eventually get a choice between the two routes.
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