A vision of on-screen marking

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Picture the scene. Serried ranks of studious people, noses to computer screens, up against a deadline. No, it is not the latest information technology A-level class. This is a vision of how school examinations could be marked in future.

The current marking procedures could certainly be improved. Every year brings a new scandal: coursework falls off a lorry; a tipsy examiner is seen marking papers on a train; GCSE papers are farmed out to markers in other continents.

But even though exam marking seems to be mimicking the migration of call centres it remains a cottage industry, often undertaken by supply teachers or retired staff on small pensions trying to make ends meet. "Pile them high, pay them cheap" has long been the exam board way.

Undoubtedly, the future lies with on-screen marking in what would amount to temporary exam "factories" but the switch must be a gradual process.

History tells us that it must not be rushed if we are to avoid the new technology fiascos of the Inland Revenue and the Child Support Agency.

Edexcel appears to be straining at the leash - it has used on-screen marking for 4 million papers this year, more than three times as many as last year - and now wants to have key stage 2 and 3 papers marked on screen. No wonder Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is saying "Whoa!" even though he also wants to computerise the examining system. The truth is that we still do not know enough about the effects of taking and marking exams on screen. Will some candidates gain, while others are disadvantaged? Will on-screen marking encourage the growth of multiple-choice "papers" at the expense of essay-based exams? And will examiners' judgement be affected by hours of screen work?

The most important question of all, however, is what is the primary reason the exam boards want to switch to on-screen marking? Is it to a) save money or b) raise standards? Essay answers would be appreciated but a one-letter answer would do.

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