Examinations - Pen and paper exams 'short-change' students

25th October 2013 at 01:00
Digital tests are the future, International Baccalaureate head says

Students who have grown up with computers are being "short-changed" by the continued use of pen and paper assessments, according to the new head of one of the world's leading exam boards.

In an exclusive interview with TES, Siva Kumari - who will take up her role as director general of the International Baccalaureate (IB) in January - said that the need for more digital assessment was an urgent issue for all educational institutions.

She revealed that her organisation, which works with 3,665 schools in 146 countries, was piloting on-screen exams in its Middle Years Programme (MYP) for 11- to 16-year-olds, in a bid to address the issue.

Leaders of IB schools have complained that although children use technology every day to "construct" their work, when it comes to assessment they are still forced to sit traditional paper-based exams.

"That particular bit actually bothers me because I think that we are short-changing students in that way," Dr Kumari said. "I had to do that when I was doing my doctorate. I had to stop constructing on my laptop and sit down and write something, and I was like, 'You're kidding me.' So I think there will be a natural cry for change in educational systems.

"I don't think students and parents will be OK if it takes 20 years. We know now that most three-year-olds start their lives with an iPad. I am not sure that most educational institutions can fairly ask students like that to work on paper."

Dr Kumari is the latest in a series of educationalists to speak out on the need for more "e-assessment". Last month, David Hanson, chief executive of the UK's Independent Association of Prep Schools, predicted the widespread use of online tests by 2023, saying that the current exams system was "not fit for purpose".

In 2011, Isabel Nisbet, then chief executive of England's exams regulator Ofqual, warned that school exams were "running the risk of becoming invalid, as their medium of pen and ink increasingly differs from the way in which youngsters learn".

At the time, there were warnings that any digital alternative would lead to problems over how to ensure fairness, because of computers with different speeds and varying internet connections, as well as the challenge of data security.

But Dr Kumari said the IB was finding ways to "work around" the "flaky" internet connections at otherwise well-equipped schools in countries such as Africa. These solutions are being developed through the MYP pilot, which involves 49 schools in more than 30 countries, including the UK, the US, Australia, the Netherlands and Malaysia.

The new assessments are expected to be offered to all IB schools from next year, with the first results published in 2015 for language and literature, history, biology, maths and interdisciplinary learning. Other subjects will follow in 2016.

Dr Kumari (pictured right) said the tests - which will amount to some students' school leaving certificates - were "quite unique" and innovative, and went beyond more usual on-screen multiple choice tests. They involved asking students to respond in real time to "four or five inputs" that might include "a video from BBC, a newspaper article from TES, or whatever", she said. "The community is pretty psyched about it."

But Dr Kumari could not say when such tests would be developed for the IB 16-19 diploma. "That is much higher stakes for the kids because it has implications for university admissions," she said. "We would be more deliberate, I suppose, even more deliberate in ensuring that it fits with universities' thinking.

"We need to ask them (universities) 'What kind of student would you like to receive?' Because they have to be willing to accept these kinds of assessments."

Dr Kumari admitted that there were potential problems, but said: "Someone will have to take that leap of faith and say we are going to do this. For a company like us, it is a question of whether we can afford to pull off two different versions of things like that, and if you do then it becomes this question of reliability."

She added that her organisation was interested in the more explicit assessment of "non-cognitive attributes" and "21st- century skills", such as persistence.

The influential Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) has been exploring similar areas and is expected to introduce computer-based tests of collaborative problem-solving to its 2015 assessment.

Tim Oates, director of research at Cambridge Assessment, a UK-based exam board operating in more than 160 countries, said: "We are very well aware of the importance of moving to technology. But it has to be done in a way that is entirely sympathetic to the state of development in a particular national setting. If done insensitively, it can actually increase problems of validity (of results), not decrease them."

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