Post-16 - Bring back pen and paper, colleges say

10th January 2014 at 00:00
Backlash in the US as computer testing expands across the globe

Around the world, educators are switching from traditional pen and paper tests to digital assessments. From 2015, tests for the influential Programme for International Student Assessment will be primarily computer- based, and the International Baccalaureate, one of the world's largest exam boards, is piloting onscreen exams in its Middle Years Programme.

But in the US, a backlash has taken place against the move towards computerised testing in adult education.

Last week the General Education Test (GED), the high-school equivalency exam taken by more than 700,000 people in 2012, went through the biggest revamp in its seven-decade history. Its owners, the American Council on Education, say the changes will make it more rigorous and will better prepare adults for college or employment.

But the move has alienated a growing number of states, with nine turning their back on the test completely and three others offering alternatives. One of the main concerns is that the new GED contains no pen and paper assessment and is now entirely computerised.

Some states, such as New York, say that their testing centres have insufficient capacity to deliver the assessment solely on computers, while others fear that adults who lack the necessary computing skills will be deterred from taking the test.

But CT Turner, director of public affairs for the GED Testing Service, a joint venture between the American Council on Education and Pearson Education, told TES that the switch to computers was vital to prepare adults for jobs.

"We have known since we started talking about these changes in 2010 there were some state adult education directors who felt adults were not ready to use computers to take the tests," he said. "In these states they are taking tests that closely align with our old tests. They basically said, `We can do this with pen and paper.'

"But the reality is [the GED test] can't be just about the skills equivalency, it has to be about preparing people for jobs. If you go to any of the larger employers they all require a computer-based application for a job. We are not setting our students up for success if they can't even complete the job application."

The shift towards digital assessment has been described as inevitable by growing numbers of educators. Last September, David Hanson, chief executive of the UK's Independent Association of Prep Schools, predicted that the use of online tests would be widespread by 2023, calling the current exams system "not fit for purpose".

And last month Siva Kumari, the new director general of the International Baccalaureate, said that students who had grown up with computers were being "short-changed" by the continued use of pen and paper assessments.

She said that leaders of International Baccalaureate schools had complained that although children used technology everyday to "construct" their work, when it came to assessment they were still being forced to sit traditional paper-based exams.

Millions of American children are due to take new online exams this year as tests for the Common Core State Standards initiative are trialled and rolled out across the country.

Mr Turner said he was "absolutely confident" that the states that had turned their backs on the computerised tests would eventually make the change.

"I think sometimes we have a fear of holding people to a certain bar," he added. "But time and again students have shown that when you raise that bar, they can reach it.

"I'm absolutely confident that these states will realise that this is what adult learners will need, and what these jobs are requiring. It's just a matter of when they realise."

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