Students to tangle with virtual web
Hundreds of thousands of teenagers will take a test next year to assess their ability in those indispensable 21st-century office skills - searching the internet, sending emails and compiling spreadsheets.
Nearly 3,000 secondaries have said that they are interested in giving their Year 9 pupils the new test in information and communications technology.
The test, which has been trialled successfully in 500 schools this term, will be the first fully computerised assessment made available on a large scale.
Some 35,000 pupils have been trying the on-screen assessments, developed for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority by the computer firm RM and marked entirely by computer.
The 13 and 14-year-olds were given two 50-minute tests at the computer.
They had access to a specially-designed virtual web which provides fictional information rather than the internet. For example, the youngsters receive an email from a local newspaper editor asking them to provide a list of vacancies to feature in the paper's jobs section.
Pupils then have to search the virtual internet to find the jobs, send emails asking for more information, put the jobs they find on to a spreadsheet and email it back to the editor. As they work, the computer tracks them to give them a national curriculum level. Pupils are assessed by the computer on the methods they use, rather than on their final answers.
Among those who took the trial tests were 130 Year 9 pupils at Chesham community college, in Buckinghamshire. Three computer rooms were used, with half of the year group taking an assessment at the same time.
Margaret Gingell, network manager, said it had gone ahead without any major technical hitches. Pupils were also positive about the tests. Daniel O'Neill, 13, said: "They are better and easier to understand. I use a computer at home, so I know what I'm doing. It's better than just sitting there and writing."
Kimberley Pearson, 14, said: "It was a bit confusing at first because we had never done a test like this before, but once I got to know it I found it quite enjoyable."
The test is to be made statutory by 2008, pending successful trials, and will be offered to every secondary school next year.
The question is whether the technology will work on such a widespread basis.
Chesham is relatively well-equipped, having spent pound;100,000 updating its computers in the past year. But Martin Ripley, head of e-strategy at the QCA, said: "We have proved over the past four weeks that this trial can now be rolled out on a national scale."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"This is an excellent exam. Provided QCA have worked on maximising the test's reliability, I think it will be very popular with schools."
12-page ICT subject focus in Teacher magazine