The scheme is part of a broader strategy for national tests that will see more electronic assessment and fewer paper-based exams. Martin Ripley, QCA's head of assessment policy, says: "I can't think of anyone who is lobbying against e-assessment." Ministers, awarding bodies, technology firms and teachers are all in favour.".
The screen-based ICT test looks nothing like its paper equivalent which takes students through a linear test. From the start, students can familiarise themselves with the whole test. They can decide what to click on and how they will complete tasks. Each decision made is recorded by the computer, providing detailed feedback for teachers about how students have approached the test.
Marking and awarding is also computerised, with electronic notification of results sent almost immediately after tests are completed.
To test ICT skills, QCA has developed its own generic versions of proprietary programs. The test simulates the internet so that students can be tested on, say, search techniques while offline.
In place of exam halls with adjudicators, e-assessment is less stressful for students. Buddy, an on-screen character, oversees the test and serves as a motivator. Buddy can answer queries and interrupts if students are wasting time.
The potential exists for Buddy to prompt students to move on if they have achieved maximum marks on a section.
QCA is hoping to counter claims by teachers that tests are stressful, especially for young children.
This new approach also promises a radical change to rigid timetables.
"There is almost infinite variation," says Mr Ripley, adding that fresh tests can be generated on demand, when students are ready. Each test is new, so no advantage can be gained by students picking the brains of peers who have already been tested.
Not everyone agrees. Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, says: "If each test is fresh, then how are they standardised?"
He is also concerned that e-assessment could bring more multiple-choice questions and more tests. With many questions and much to test, QCA has opted to run its ICT pilot this year and in May 2005, when it is hoped many more schools will take part.
For details of technical requirements for participation and to register, see www.ks3ictpilot.com Stand B620