At Gateway sixth-form college in Leicester, the results of this summer's Basic Skills literacy tests made for very good reading. The pass rate was 64 per cent - a dramatic increase on the previous year's figure of 38 per cent.
In both years the teenagers tackled the same kind of questions. But this year, the students did the test on-screen, and staff believe it was the move from paper to computer that made the difference. "Young people are relaxed when they're on the computer," says Jean Collington, head of the college's skills development division. "It's less threatening than sitting in an exam room. The students felt less stressed, and I believe that accounted for most of the increase. The pass rate for numeracy also rose, from 75 to 85 per cent."
The tests are from City Guilds, one of 10 awarding bodies that have been working with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to provide electronic assessment of Basic and Key Skills (BKS). The initiative marks the first step in a strategy to make testing for a broad range of qualifications available on-screen within the next five years.
More than 100,000 learners - around 15 to 20 per cent of the total candidate base - have now taken electronic tests for BKS. Martin Ripley, head of assessment at the QCA, says: "Two years ago you could only take the test on paper, and only on one of five fixed dates throughout the year. We aimed to provide much more flexibility, getting tests to students when they wanted them. Marking is done online, so rather than waiting up to three or four months for results, candidates now get them within 24 hours."
"This means we can do a test when the student is ready," says Jean. "We could book a test one day and run it the next, if we wanted to." She registers candidates via the City Guilds website, and the test is sent electronically to a designated computer at the college, ready to be unlocked and put into use. Results can be given out as soon as students have finished - although Jean is careful not to do this if someone has failed and has other exams on the same day.
At Berwick-upon-Tweed community high school, Year 12 students doing vocational training with local firms take literacy and numeracy courses in the school's adult learning centre rather than in the classrooms. On-screen testing of City Guilds Basic Skills was offered for the first time last December, and learners loved the fact that rather than having to wait anxiously for five or six weeks for their results, they knew right away whether they had passed. "That is a key benefit," says Hamish Hamilton, essential skills co-ordinator at the centre. "This generation likes everything that is instant - text messaging, fast food and instant exam results. They make an interesting contrast with our older learners, who find the computer option more threatening than paper."
Those who have been unsuccessful now have more time for re-sits, although Hamish would like to see the tests provide more detailed feedback on candidates' performance - rather than simply "pass" or "fail" - to help with preparation. "At the moment I don't know whether someone has failed by one mark or by 10, and I have to rely on the student to pinpoint areas of difficulty."
He is unsure whether candidates would have fared better or worse on paper.
"Some would probably have preferred paper for the literacy exam, which features multiple-choice questions that refer to passages of text. On a screen, there are occasions when you can't display the text and the question at the same time. On paper, you can refer constantly to the text and underline what is relevant." The centre plans to offer the tests again this year.
At Priestley sixth-form college in Warrington, on-screen City Guilds tests in Key Skills Application of Number, Communication and Information Technology were taken in June by 20 candidates who had missed the deadline for applying for the traditional versions. Management information systems manager Clare Sandford, says: "We had a 50 per cent pass rate, which is better than it would have been with paper, because these were students who don't like formalexaminations. They found it easier and less intimidating to use the computer.
"We are going to run some of the tests this term, and will be encouraging more students to take them. The on-screen option is much more efficient because we avoid the logistical problems of having to run all our exams at the same time."
By 2009, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) would like all existing GCSEs, AS and A2 examinations to be available on-screen. The regulator also wants all awarding bodies to be able to accept and assess electronic portfolios of students' work. "We will encourage and help awarding bodies along the electronic route," says the QCA's Martin Ripley.
"We will also work very closely with them to ensure that nothing goes out until it is high-quality and reliable."
He believes there is great potential for innovation. "At the moment the content of electronic and paper-based tests is broadly the same, because the program of study that sits behind the tests is the same. But over the next two years we would like to see the electronic tests develop their own momentum, employing computers to provide more colourful and richer assessment. There is a perception that e-assessment means multiple-choice testing, but that is not true. We want to ensure that it broadens the skills and knowledge being assessed. A good way of doing that is to provide problem-solving scenarios, and we have offered an example ourselves with the development of the new KS3 ICT tests, in which children solve problems such as designing a spreadsheet to provide a ticketing system for a cinema."
"The Digital Divide is an issue we are addressing," he says. "We also have to allay concerns about the potential to hack into systems or plagiarise material. I am quite clear that e-assessment systems are more secure than paper-based ones, but I suspect most people out there don't understand that view. We need to convince everyone."