A talented Mr Ripley

In the movie, Ripley is a master of deception. Jack Kenny finds the QCA's Martin Ripley refreshingly blunt as he plans a quiet revolution in assessment.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) is working on a radical overhaul of assessment, though quite how radical is not yet widely understood.

In April 2004 Ken Boston, chief executive of the QCA, challenged the exam boards about electronic assessment. Within five years he wants to see the following: all new qualifications, whether for schools or for adults in the work-place, with an option for on-screen assessment; all awarding bodies accepting and assessing e-portfolios; most GCSEs, AS and A2 examinations available optionally on-screen, curriculum tests available on-screen for schools that want to use them; on-demand assessments becoming a feature of GCSE; 10 new qualifications, specifically designed for electronic delivery and assessment, ready to use, accredited and live.

Changes in assessment, it has long been argued, are the key to radical change. Assessment determines not only what is taught but how it is taught.

Jack Kenny talks to Martin Ripley (pictured) head of e-strategy and innovation at the QCA who argues that, in addition to its traditional role as regulator of standards, the QCA must be a force for innovation creativity and change.

JK: Ken Boston has said recently that in this area of e-assessment the QCA needs to be on the front foot. What does that mean?

MR: There is no-one else in the country who can shape e-assessment over the next decade. As we look ahead, the opportunity is there to deliver, if we get it right, quality e-assessment to learners in a number of areas around the Tomlinson framework. Think about the funding that is going into the NAA (National Assessment Agency) for the routine administration of tasks. That sort of funding should be directed into ensuring real change for learners, higher-quality, wider ranges of material. With teacher-led assessment come better national assessment frameworks, e-portfolios, test banks, better communication between the teacher and the learner. That tapestry is mind-blowingly complex but we have to do it."

Will it all really happen?

If this generation fails to take the opportunity that we have over the next 10-year period to take assessment, to lift it root and branch until it is unrecognisable to what we have at the moment, we will have failed.

Politicians seem to have lost their nerve on the Tomlinson proposals. Will the politicians have the courage to follow all this through?

The more conservative will see the risk. They want us to ensure that the education our children receive and the standards are the same they were faced with at school. The change that I talk about is risky; things will go wrong but that is what innovation is about. There is a clear appetite to accept that the gains that will be delivered later on are worth the risks now and the occasional hiccup along the way. If we don't do this, education will not move on and we will continue to face lack of motivation, lack of participation, dropping out, adults not learning effectively.

E-portfolios are something you talk about frequently. What are they?

It is about a menu of possibilities about a dialogue between learner and tutor wherever they are located and communication about the learning objectives, how well the student is learning, how effectively the evidence demonstrates what is being achieved. It is about the learner being able to ask for guidance, the learner working with peer groups, mentoring. It also includes the submission of course work for GCSE. E-portfolios must offer a broader range of technical solutions. Why not the mobile phone? Why always Word documents that are not a jot of difference to a hardcopy version of a conventional portfolio?

Can we include video or audio?

Certainly. Why not when this best reflects the child's ability? Digital pen technology will enable us to see the development of an idea; students can doodle ideas on paper using a digital pen. We capture that page of thought and see how the thoughts evolved on that page. That can all be posted up to an examiner who can see what a student did, a video of the product, a voice recording of the student reflections saying, "I wouldn't do it that way again because...". Audio enables us to listen to a student's reflections. The potential of the way that technology mix can capture better peer review, group work, creative processes is phenomenal.

How has your thinking moved on recently?

The vision and blueprint remains in place. We are developing it in more concrete terms. The targets that Ken Boston talked about in April will gradually evolve. In the QCA we have a taskforce bringing all the aspects together. We are drawing pictures for the next 10 years. Infrastructure, assessment methods and subject content are the framework. We must broaden, we must ensure that e-assessment supports that range and helps that drive into school-based assessment - problem solving, thinking skills, voice recognition technology to allow students to speak their understanding.

E-assessment must offer more than what is rewarded at the moment.

Will you be able to take the exam boards along these new roads?

They are suppliers in a marketplace where demand is leading them. The QCA's response is that we are not leading the awarding bodies; the market place is doing that. Our job is to ensure quality, reliability, access. Just over a year ago, no key skills tests were available on screen. This is a qualification that has a million and a half candidates taking the test each year so it is high-volume assessment. At the last count, 12 per cent are now taking the test on-screen. The awarding bodies who know that they are not delivering that on screen are aware that they are losing business.

Boards will have to respond.

I am quoting you. "When e-assessment comes it could bring in the most fundamental changes to teaching and learning that we have seen so far." How will it do that?

Assessment systems have a huge impact on what is taught. You can look at some phases of education where assessments dictate the curriculum experiences that students have. It also dictates the pedagogy, the way that teachers prepare students. If the assessment is through a three-hour paper exam that is what they are taught, the content and the pedagogy. Until the assessment requirement changes the impact of technology on learning will be muted.

Isn't it a problem for people who think like you that in most schools ICT is not yet mission critical?

It should be. If it does not become mission critical in the next 10 years, the scenario for me is an appalling cottage industry, mismatched software systems, technology that collapses constantly, that isn't supported by a central framework. The key work for the QCA is to take a fledgling industry, technology in education, and shape it to the point that it is reliable, that it does work and delivers quality for kids. If we don't get it right we will simply replace the paper cottage industry for assessment with an even worse electronic version.

QCA Stand Y36


Martin Ripley's lecture on e-assessment is on Wednesday January 12 at 11am in Seminar Theatre D

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