the e-Assessment Association

Digital NCEA exams reflect modern-world imperatives

Digital NCEA exams reflect modern-world imperatives

The Southland Times Dec 04 2018

EDITORIAL: The very phrase “digital examinations” brings a couple of quite different scenarios to mind.

Each potentially involves a measure of discomfort in pursuit of important information.

Most recently, in the educational rather than medical context, it relates to the announcement that next year 14 NCEA subjects will offer end-of-year digital exams. That’s a substantial gathering of momentum from the trials and pilot examinations that have been used since 2014.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority is pursuing a 2020 digital goal, but the developing sense of urgency isn’t artificial. The transition has to happen, to avoid falling (perhaps we should add “further”)  out of sync with the way life has evolved.

READ MORE: 14 NCEA subjects to offer digital exams in 2019

The concern, and there is one, is the small matter of the lumpiness of the transition. It’s hardly as though the process to this point has been free of failures.

This year, in a pilot Level 1 digital English exam, a glitch interrupted proceedings. Consider the frustrations we all feel when confronted with petulant computers at the best of times, add it too good old-fashioned exam stress, and you can only sympathise for teenagers facing a truly ulcerous combination of pressures.

Then again, in the marking phase, last year 258 students sitting six digital pilot exams were found to have been wrongly awarded no marks.

Such spasmodic failures are no small thing, but we should acknowledge the extent to which things have generally gone right.

The imperative is to make the transition as smooth as possible; not to pretend it does not need to be made. Even internal school assessments must be adapted for the digital age.

Among the points highlighted by NZQA digital assessment transformation deputy chief executive Andrea Gray – who should tell her bosses she needs a shorter job title – is the small matter that so many students prefer the ability to type, particularly for long-form answers.

Signs of the times, folks. Handwriting is in decline and not out of slackness.  You can go back a decade, at least, and find concerns that pen-and-paper exams have proving increasingly difficult for pupils who are more used to composing their thoughts on a keyboard.  

And, not to get too pointy-headed about it,  the case has been put that thoughts aren’t just expressed, but actually generated, through the writing process. So a student who has learned to marshal thoughts one way, but is then tested the other, is further disadvantaged.

Granted, as things stand not every student has the same access to computers that everyone else, though schools and communities are making great efforts to address the disparity.  As things stand, online exams mirror questions given to students who are sitting under traditional test conditions. So paper tests remain an option for the time being.

Generally it’s the plain-writing exams that are proving most popular for the digital option. Whereas, when it comes to science and maths, students are finding these simpler to complete on paper.  A temporary state, surely. Clearly there’s work to be done to improve testing capabilities in these areas.

Not for the first time, then, a Government agency is dealing with the twin imperatives of treading carefully, at the same time hearing finger-drumming impatience from several directions.