Time, candidates, please

16th April 2004 at 01:00
I was much taken with the official proposal that e-assessment will in future allow examinations to be taken while sitting at a computer in the pub. It could revolutionise the way we look at public exams and solve all our problems. Candidates may have done badly but, after a few lagers, will they care?

"I'll have a pint of your finest lemonade, landlord, a packet of pork scratchings, oh, and a couple of Sats while you're on with it. Keep the change. Have a drink and a GCSE yourself."

This is what examinations should be like. To hell with all that pressure in the exam room, schools completely paralysed, key rooms and teachers taken out of service every summer.

Get down to the Dog and Partridge for a much more relaxed version. No more of the dreadful high-stakes exam stuff that ruins the whole family's summer.

Low-stakes testing, or "low shtakes teshting" as it will no doubt be known in future, is the new fashion.

The problem of recruiting examiners will be solved at a stroke. Scripts will be far more interesting to mark, as candidates work their way through the test paper and the alcohol. Take that time-honoured history question about the causes of the Second World War.

"The Second World War broke out in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. Another gin and tonic please, landlord. He had already marched into countries like Austria and Czechoslo . . . Checko . . . Chechnya, or somewhere and . . .

who bloody cares anyway, because I don't . . . are you looking at me? What's your name? You're my best mate, you are . . . Do you know anything about history?"

I hope all aspects of e-assessment are fully considered before it becomes the standard form of public examination. There are potential benefits as well as snags. Certainly our present system cannot lurch on. With 24,000,000 papers to be processed inside three or four weeks, is it surprising that the odd parcel of papers gets delivered to the local chippie by mistake, or that exam boards have to recruit anyone who happens to be passing their building during June and July?

There will be big problems with any substantial shift to electronic examinations and "testing when ready", that is, being able to take exams at any time. The worst is that it will simply encourage those crackpots who want even more testing.

Mad though it may seem, given the recent mayhem with A-levels, for the past three years the number 10 policy unit has been frantically trying to get the Advanced Extension (AE) exam imposed as a third A-level, just in case AS and A2 weren't complex enough already.

If it had actually taken off, and fortunately it bombed, the whole system would have collapsed completely. Perhaps the number 10 people would then have had to mark the papers themselves. Serve them right for dreaming up the loony scheme.

Another issue is security. It is difficult enough to monitor coursework in today's examinations, but if places like pubs are to become exam centres, the potential for fraud, should people take exams on behalf of their mates, or assist them via their mobile, will be considerable.

Most horrific of all would be if there were a wholesale switch to multiple-choice testing. Testing online can be very imaginative, involving candidates being videoed, for example, but it will be very tempting to overuse tickboxes and checklists, thereby reducing people to daleks.

Schools will also need a complete rethink of how they function, if testing when ready becomes too permissive: any time, anywhere.

"I won't be coming to your geography lesson today, miss."

"Oh, why's that?". "I did the exam in Burger King last night and got a grade C."

Perhaps one answer is to combine each test with a suitable location. After all the fuss over last year's boring key stage 2 English question about standing in a queue, imagine taking your 11- year-olds down to Tesco to do the Sat on location, so to speak. Why not? Artists make sketches in situ, so Year 6 pupils could watch customers waiting at the checkout and then write about it in exam booths. Makes sense.

So look forward to the day when, instead of marching up and down the aisles in school, looking for smuggled crib sheets and illicit mobiles, you can supervise Sats, GCSEs, A-levels, the lot, down at the pub, while sipping a few glasses of your favourite tipple.

Question: "If a pupil taking a test eats one packet of cheese and onion crisps every half hour, how many will he consume during a three-hour paper, and what will his supervising teacher say if he fails the exam?"

Answer: "Hic."

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