For key stage 3 students, the new on-screen ICT test will soon become a reality. In 2008 the test becomes statutory. Today's Year 7 pupils will have to take it when they reach Year 9, and the results will be published for all to see.
The test has been piloted for the past two years; two further pilots are running this year and in 2007. The smart advice to schools is: sign up and start now.
"Any school that carries on ignoring this is going to be faced with a test they are just not prepared for," says Clare Johnson, ICT programme director with the secondary national strategy. "We expect to have quite a big pilot group this year, but we won't have the entire country. If you miss the boat this year, that leaves only one more opportunity to find out what the test feels like and how the school performs. And if you don't do the pilot in 2007, you will be caught out very badly - and the world will be looking on."
In the test, pupils solve problems on-screen, working in a virtual world - the fictitious town of Pepford - and emails arrive from local organisations seeking help. Pupils have the use of a toolkit of software applications similar to the spreadsheet, wordprocessing and other software used in class, and their actions are recorded, click by click, for assessment purposes. The test is designed for two 50-minute sessions; this year's pupils will take it in May. Two practice sessions will provide them with feedback on their performance.
Martin Ripley, head of e-strategy at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, says: "My advice is to get involved this year, because our experience shows that schools really need two years' practice. This year, I would advise a school to put in only some pupils rather than the whole year group, and set about trying to learn as much as possible about the test.
Next year, try to do it for real, so that senior managers know the school is ready for 2008."
Once registered, the first step is to have the school's computer network accredited as fit to run the test, which gives access to a bank of software resources: familiarisation materials which show how the test and the toolkit work; a range of 15-minute taster tests focusing on particular tasks; and two 50-minute practice tests.
"There's still time to register for May," says Martin, "although schools do need a couple of months to prepare themselves. Even if you're too late for this year's test, I would say still register, so you can start working with the materials as soon as possible. We have got to do this test, so let's do the best by our pupils and get it right," says Clare. "It's vital to get accredited. Only then will you be able to see the tests and start preparing.
"There are three aspects to preparation: the technical issues involved in ensuring your systems are ready - Becta (the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) is providing excellent technical support, and if you fail the accreditation, they will quickly step in and help.
"Then there are the administration issues - how are you going to timetable, manage and invigilate the test? You need to try things out. For example, schools have found it difficult to fit the test into an ICT lesson, because there just isn't enough time.
"You also have to ensure the students know what to do when they get into the test arena. They need some practice on the software toolkit, and they need to be shown how to tackle a test. But you also have to make sure they have been through the whole programme of study, and that they feel grounded in what we mean by things like modelling and data handling.
"I wouldn't advise anyone to go through the practice tests over and over again, but teachers should have a plan of campaign for using them in their teaching. As an example, you might do a unit on data handling and then do part of the test, saying: what have you learned and how would you apply it here? It is worth having departmental meetings to think about your scheme of work, and giving senior leaders time to look at how the test might be introduced to pupils."
At Hreod Parkway School in Swindon, ICT leader Graham Offler took part in last year's pilot with 200 of his 250 Year 9 students. He feels sufficiently confident now to go through it with the full cohort this year.
He says:"Now that we know what we are doing, we have altered our teaching.
We have had to think more carefully about how we teach the use of ICT, particularly in grey areas where there are several ways of doing something.
For example, if you are sending the same email message to three people, is it worth establishing a group, so you only have to write the message once? Previously we might have said: since it is only three people, rather than 30, just do some quick copying and pasting to create three emails. However, we found that students were expected to create an email group for five people if they were to achieve a higher level in the test. Now we teach to the higher level."
In class, his students now have to go online and find their worksheets, so they become comfortable with receiving instructions on-screen. They also tackle some of their projects using the toolkit of applications they will be using in the test. Graham is thinking of asking Year 8 students to try the practice test: "They won't have covered all the ground, but it will give them valuable experience."
He describes the support he received last year as "faultless", and says the main challenge was finding slots in the timetable for the test sessions.
"To be safe, you need two hours for each 50-minute test, to allow for getting everyone started and handling queries."
His advice: "Just take the bull by the horns and have a go. If you don't do it now, it will only put more pressure on the students in two years' time.
Do the test while it doesn't really count - treat it like your mock exams."
l KS3 ICT pilot: www.ks3ictpilot.com Register and begin the accreditation process at the site (or tel: 0870 870 1025). Also find background information, details of technical requirements and support, demonstrations, tutorials, user guides, case studies and a set of posters, including the QCA's Quick Planner wallchart. This year will see the creation of schemes of work and revision aids, which will be available in autumn www.becta.org.uk
* Register and become accredited now, so that you can start working with the software.
* Treat this year's pilot as a learning exercise; try it for real next year.
* Schools can begin accreditation at any time, even though they miss the May test window.
* Allow time for staff to use the familiarisation materials for themselves.
* Ensure that pupils cover the entire programme of study: pilots have shown some pupils lacked confidence in areas such as modelling and data handling.
* Provide opportunities for pupils to use the software toolkit .
* Build some of the practice materials into lessons and projects, rather than simply running a non-stop regime of tests.
* Plan for a test session taking considerably longer than 50 minutes - schools have had difficulty fitting a test into an ICT lesson.
* Successful management of an on-screen test calls for careful planning, especially if the test is to run in more than one room.
* Teachers report that pilot students are proud to be seen as pioneers, working on behalf of younger pupils.