Chimps make the grades

17th September 2004 at 01:00
With the examination process becoming more privatised, be prepared for a much greater increase in electronic assessment. There is not much profit to be made from thousands of intelligent examiners sucking their Biros thoughtfully, as they plough painstakingly through detailed essays and assignments.

The real jackpot lies in dismembering exams into tiny, mechanically-scored globs of information, and then farming these separate molecules out to scanning machines, robots, or cheap human labour, wherever that is to be found. To hell with reflective assessment, far too costly.

In the ideal world of profit-making business, children's brains would be scanned to elicit what they knew and the result transmitted in a microsecond directly to the exam board's computer and bank account. "Ding ding. You are grade C. Next can of beans . . . er, candidate, please."

Of course electronic assessment does not have to be mechanical, but it will be. It is perfectly possible to video a complete opera and send it instantly to the Moon and back, or to transmit a 100,000-word thesis to an examiner's own computer, instead of nipping down to the post office with a giant jiffy bag and waiting for it to get lost in the mail system.

This is the benign use of e-technology, however. It may save on postage and delivery time, but the punters' work still has to be assessed. Profiteers are more impressed by speed and economy than elegance. I fear the results for education will be dreadful.

It was a mistake to allow a private company to take over the exam board Edexcel. There was no great discussion of this momentous move. It simply happened. Significantly the first intimation of the takeover came not in the educational press, but in the business section of a Sunday newspaper.

Public examining should be a service, not a profit-making business. Bemused teachers, ringing up about marks this summer, found themselves talking to someone in Malaysia. As the other two examination boards have to compete with Edexcel, the profit motive spreads like a virus. Already subjects with fewer candidates, like classics and some modern languages, are being dropped.

You do not have to be a business genius to work out the future. Suppose you want to found your own exam board. How could you make a profit? Simple.

First, reduce the syllabus to easily-scored questions and answers. Multiple choice, tickboxes, short "right" or "wrong" answers are ideal. Don't waste your time asking intricate questions about Juliet's emotions, far too costly to score. Ask candidates whether Tybalt was murdered by (a) Romeo; (b) his Uncle Bert;(c) Scooby Doo.

Second, drop any subjects without blockbuster entry numbers. No point in running loss leaders. What is this? A charity?

Third, farm out the papers to wherever in the world it is cheapest to mark them. Postage is no problem, so email them to far-flung places, if necessary -Albania, Mongolia, Rotherham.

Fourth, hire anyone to mark papers - convicts with time on their hands, Year 6 kids who have finished Sats, circus chimps (really can be paid peanuts, so even more profit).

Fifth, set up a "customer relations department" (ho, ho) that will fob off disgruntled customers. "If you are complaining about an exam grade, press 1.

"If you are about to smash your phone with a sledgehammer because no one is replying, press 2. If you wish to speak to something living instead of a recorded message, hang up and talk to your cat."

There is talk of an unregulated market in examining. It would be far wiser to reduce the 30 million papers taken each summer, rather than expand the system for ever. But if anyone can set up an exam board, then let us found our own, the Swollen Wallet Assessment Group. We at SWAG could really clean up.

Here are some of our sample questions.

1 "Hitler beat Napoleon at the Battle of Marston Moor". If your answer is YES, phone our call centre in Hyderabad; if your answer is NO, email it to our operative 'Slimeball', tent21@costa

2 If one traditional exam paper costs pound;10 to mark, and an electronic paper like this costs pound;1 to score, how much more will you earn on 30 million exam scripts?

3 Imagine you are running a profit-making exam board. Look at the two photographs on your screen and click on the place you would expect to retire to: (a) the Bahamas; (b) Salford.

When you have finished this paper give your credit card number in the space below, ticking the appropriate boxes.

Charges: to find out your grade by email pound;10 (pound;20 extra if you want a grade A); to speak to a human being at the results stage pound;50; to do a proper exam paper (sorry, this option no longer available).

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