Sitting - and marking - exams online is not as far away as you think. The first such national test will be sat in 2006. Phil Revell reports
Few teachers warm to assessment. Setting tests, invigilation and brain-numbing hours spent marking - teachers may accept these as an unfortunate necessity, but hardly anyone actually likes doing it. So the announcement of the paperless exam ought to have met rapturous applause.
Which it didn't, partly because the reality is still over the horizon and partly because teachers are a little nervous about entrusting public examinations to a computer system.
At the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, these worries are well understood. Its chief executive, Ken Boston, may have said that "on-screen assessment will shortly touch the life of every learner in this country", but the exams agency knows only too well that there is a series of hurdles to be jumped first.
"There's a five-year timetable. In 2005 we will see field trials," says Martin Ripley, the authority's head of assessment policy. It is encouraging awarding bodies, as exam boards are now called, to set up pilots. Edexcel is planning to test online GCSEs in chemistry, biology, physics and geography. The first pupils to take a real test entirely on-screen are likely to be 14-year-olds sitting ICT in 2006.
To some people's surprise the QCA is open to almost any form of e-assessment, not just multiple-choice tests. "We are encouraging awarding bodies to think about coursework and practicals as well as tests," says Mr Ripley. "The only no-go areas are automated scoring of long responses like essays, and invigilation. There's no replacement technology for that."
The advantages are obvious. Students would see results in days rather than months; schools would have more flexibility in how and when assessments were scheduled; and awarding bodies would find their costs substantially reduced, meaning lower fees for schools.
Fears about call-centre marking and computer reliability are unfounded, say the experts, who point to existing test software such as Goal, which offers a comprehensive online test with instant feedback. Other systems in use include the successful SAM learning, a revision tool that includes a test format and provides instant feedback.
nferNelson's online tests contain 3,000 maths, science and English items from national tests for key stages 1, 2 and 3. At Harmans Water primary school in Bracknell, Berkshire, Dawn Halsey, an assistant head, has been using these tests with several groups.
"The test banks allow teachers to build tests for specific topics," she says. "You can do an exact copy of a Sats paper or pick and mix. With one group, I could see from the results that I needed to do more on magnets with Year 4. It allowed me to tailor-make my teaching."
A second dimension of e-assessment is the data that it makes available to schools. At the Notre Dame high school in Norwich, Chris Sweetman, an assistant head, is keen to maximise the opportunities. The school uses SAM Learning to help Years 10 and 11 with revision. It is one of thousands of schools taking part in the Fischer Family Trust performance data project.
The trust's database contains performance information on more than 10 million pupils culled from national testing results. This is the other side of e-assessment: schools can use information to support and challenge pupils' learning.
The information comes as a spreadsheet showing the student's test score and the teacher assessment. This is then compared with national averages, student performance in schools of a similar type, even with Norfolk's county targets. Teachers at Notre Dame school use the data to set challenges.
"The sample that they are using is the whole country," says Mr Sweetman.
"We give teachers a class list with the scores, alongside a minimum target grade and a challenging target grade. We can present really useful information to children."
But the main prize is the online exam. The QCA expects an enthusiastic response. Such tests allow students to do virtual practicals in science, something very difficult to organise and supervise in traditional format.
Geography questions on glaciation could offer students a 3D simulation, while online technology papers would let them demonstrate their design knowledge.
All this at a fraction of the price, because the big costs in today's paper system lie in marking and moderation, much of which - but not all - would be automated. Martin Ripley emphasises that schools would still have the option of a traditional paper exam. "This is about choice," he says. "But we wouldn't have gone down this road if we didn't think that e-assessment was wanted."
QCA's Assessment for learning websitewww.qca.org.ukages3-1466.htmlThe Fischer Family Trust www.fischertrust.orgperformance.htmnferNELSON QCA Digital Test Bank www.nfer-nelson.co.uk