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Renaissance put to the test

Silence please. Angela McFarlane looks at what the Internet holds for examinations on-line and (below) what the pioneers are doing

There is a common belief that if you took teachers from the middle of the last century and dropped them into a classroom of the 1990s, they would find more similarities than differences in their new surroundings. This observation would probably be most apt at examination time.

From key stage 2 standard assessment tests to A-level, they would see serried ranks of students, heads bowed and scribbling furiously to complete the tasks assigned - tasks which will sample at random their knowledge and experience of at least two years of education.

Whether each candidate gets a pass or a fail grade, an A or a B, a level 4 or a 5, may depend on something as arbitrary as whether they revised the circulatory or the digestive system the night before.

There may be many information technology deserts in British schools, but the examination room is the hottest and most drought-ridden. It is not so long ago that examination boards would not even accept word-processed project work. The claim at the time, as incomprehensible now as it was then, was that unlike the case with pupils' hand-written work, the board had no way of knowing that the word-processed work was the pupil's own. The only overt role for computers in public examinations has been to mark multiple-choice answer sheets.

The result of this was to turn these sheets into an information-processing obstacle course for the poor candidate. I wonder if anyone has ever looked at the number of points entrants drop, due to incorrect completion of these forms.

Offering computer-based examinations could revolutionise assessment. A project run by the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate raises some interesting pointers. The computer adaptive testing model they have developed to assess skill levels in business English offers candidates an examination which is modified according to how they are doing.

This means you can ensure that you find out what the candidate knows, rather than simply what she does not know, as with a traditional exam. With a paper-based test you can offer some options for questions, and most advanced papers do. The extent of these options must inevitably be limited by space and bulk of exam papers. With an electronic format you can use a much larger bank of test items. Moreover, as in the computer adaptive test model, the candidates' responses can be "marked" as they go along and subsequent items offered accordingly.

This item-bank approach could open up the possibility of candidates having some input to the content of the exam. If a candidate does not know the particular poem which forms the basis of the literary criticism question in front of him, he can offer another with which he is familiar.

"Ah ha!" I hear the defenders of "rigour" exclaim, this means that he can simply learn one poem and get the same grade as a candidate who has learned the whole works of Tennyson by heart.

Well, if the degree of memorisation of the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson is what you are interested in testing, you are in trouble. But if the candidate's ability to produce intelligent discourse on the merits or otherwise of a piece of poetry is what you are interested in, this may be a better option.

Potentially on offer is an exam system which moves away from a heavy reliance on memorisation and recall, and relies more on ass-essment of skills. It could address one of the key dilemmas facing the use of IT in schools, namely that the skills pupils develop through using IT in their subject work are rarely credited in formal examinations of those subjects.

If these adaptive tests are offered via an on-line service, the options are thrown even wider. Large exam boards have banks of test items, all tested for reliability and discrimination between candidates. A candidate logging into this can be offered a personalised selection of items which could give an accurate map of her ability, knowledge and skills in the chosen area.

If candidates can only log on through approved centres, the boards have the same assurance that the candidate sitting at the terminal is the person named on the log-in sheets, just as they have that the person named on an exam script actually completed it. When broadband technology is finally with us, they will be able to do a visual check via video conferencing; this will arguably be better than the present system.

It will also be possible to carry out oral exams in a variety of subjects - the most obvious being foreign languages - more flexibly and cheaply. In fact flexibility and lower costs could be a feature of all exams offered on-line.

Biannual GCSE and A-level examining currently presents the boards and centres with an amazing logistical exercise. Writing, printing, distributing, collecting, marking, grading, moderating, and, finally, publishing results is costly and time-consuming.

The first five steps, from writing to marking, could be alleviated by the use of on-line exams built largely from the existing item banks. The data amassed on each item could be used to grade and moderate candidates' responses.

Candidates could sit an examination when they were ready and get results back more quickly. Items unsuitable for computerised marking could be marked by smaller numbers of markers who are employed full-time, rather than hard-pressed teachers who currently give up their free time for little financial reward.

Security of transmission is an obvious concern with the present on-line technologies. If broadband technology is to succeed, ways must be found to carry out secure information transfers, if only to protect the movement of payments from customers to service providers. These technologies can also be used for secure transmission of examination data.

The cost of putting on exams is very high. Despite the apparently high candidate fees and low rewards for marking, the examination boards do not make large sums.

Ultimately, offering exams electronically could be cost-effective. The initial investment needed in infrastructure would be very high, both for the boards and the centres. When schools are routinely equipped for frequent mass access to broadband technology, the equation will be resolved.

How far the examination boards are gearing up for the possibility of an on-line future is varied, but some are at least aware that they should be exploring the possibilities. For most of us, broadband technology will not come quickly, but when it does it could create conditions unrecognisable to previous generations of teachers.

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