Picture if you can, a world in which children eagerly settle down for their next test. They log on, are engaged by a colourful and stimulating screen with opportunities to show their skills and knowledge. They can choose between different tasks. They can ask for help. They can try out virtual experiments.
A blue-skies vision? Not if I were talking about the Xbox or PlayStation 2.
Nor indeed if we look at the latest innovations in on-screen assessment being developed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).
While some have been waiting for the advent of computer-delivered national curriculum tests, the QCA has quietly invented a whole new world of testing and assessment.
More than 10,000 students aged nine and 13 have taken a certified World Class Test to date. In the past year, students from 17 countries sat in front of their computer screens to complete online tests in mathematics or problem solving. Schools from the UK to Australia, Malaysia to Hong Kong, all use the online registration, on-screen delivery and automatic marking offered by World Class Tests. Right now this is the reality of ICT-based assessment.
Nine-year old children in one test question are asked to grow the world's tallest sunflower. After deciding how many drops of plant food A and plant food B to give the plant, students watch the flower grow on screen. They are asked to work out the optimum amount of each plant food needed to achieve maximum height. To do well at this question, children need to be systematic, keeping a record of their work. They need to know how to optimise.
Activities like this allow students to demonstrate skills and processes that they're unable to on paper.
More than 18,000 students, many from the comfort of their own home, have taken the World Class Test "maths challenge" online. Parents are impressed at the instant on-screen feedback. The production of teaching materials will move this sort of computer-based assessment into the classroom.
Harnessing the power of technology to deliver e-assessment is not for the fainthearted. However, Chris Gleeson, an adviser for "gifted and talented" children in Salford LEA, has taken the long-term view. "The tests really slot into a wider suite of provision across the end of the primary and through the secondary age range," he says.
One of the key issues identified by World Class Tests is that on-screen testing represents a positive change in the thinking that underpins the way children are assessed. Using a computer as both a means of presentation and as an assessment tool has demonstrated that the tests could potentially be used to identify "submerged talent" - bright children not discovered through more traditional approaches. The "average student" is actually capable of thought processes that were originally seen as beyond their abilities.
Gradually increasing numbers of candidates will sit key skills tests on-screen this year. Following QCA-facilitated research, awarding bodies have piloted on-screen delivery systems. The benefits from this initiative include a quicker turnaround of results to candidates - seven to 10 working days instead of the two to three months using traditional methods.
The QCA's responsibility is to ensure that computers deliver more reliable, consistent and educationally appealing tests than our centuries-old paper-based methods.
Those involved will need to develop new skills. Students will gain increased familiarity with taking on-screen tests. Teachers and examiners will need training in both test administration and the marking process, and regulators will need to ensure that the standards of on-screen tests are rigorous.
The QCA's work over the coming years will build a national infrastructure of ICT-based testing in classrooms. Consequently, assessment and the curriculum will complement each other much better. Teachers and students will find assessment and testing useful. Now there's a vision.
Martin Ripley is QCA principal manager of new projects
* The story so far: World Class Tests, key stage 3 ICT and Basic and Key Skills tests are all initiatives the QCA has developed in line with current e-assessment thinking.
* Key components of this vision include: automatic marking of on-screen tests; immediate feedback of results; "when ready" testing and increased adaptability.
The focus is on three key areas: content, skills and infrastructure.
* Content: initiatives to increase the scope of assessment and encourage pupils to develop new skills.
* Skills: to administer e-assessment new skills will be needed. For example, examiners will need training in on-screen marking.
* Infrastructure: developments in e-assessment should be matched with an increase in technology infrastructure in schools.
* Teaching and learning will benefit from improvements in efficiency, feedback, accuracy, motivation and flexibility in the access to assessment.
The pace at which ICT evolves is unpredictable, but QCA has identified a number of milestones...
In 2005 most secondary schools will have access to the new on-screen KS3ICT tests, which will assess pupil's ICT capability across levels 3 to 8 of the National Curriculum. By 2005 KS3 students will log on to the tests with a virtual buddy to help them work through tasks. The computer will log their every move, assessing the students' ICT capabilities, knowledge and skills.
Try the World Class tests yourself www.worldclassarena.org
Get involved, email the QCA at firstname.lastname@example.org