the e-Assessment Association

Streamlining assessments and exams

Streamlining assessments and exams

Published in Tech and Learning, April 2017.

By Patrick Coates, board member of The e-Assessment Association.

Every year, students across the country spend the end of the summer term in their school’s gymnasium or assembly hall scribbling answers to exam questions on paper, and then, once they complete their exams, they have to wait two painstakingly long months before they receive the exam results. Yet surely there’s a less drawn-out way of managing exams, especially as we’re in the digital age?

The main challenge with the UK school exam system is that exams are currently all taken at the same time, in the summer over the same time period – with the caveat of the winter ‘resit’ slot. The annual logistical challenge of sitting all exams, irrespective of the awarding organisation, at the same time is a burden not only the schools but also the markers having to mark to deadlines. I am sure there are also some students out there, including hay-fever sufferers that would also probably complain.

Tech to solve the problem

So why can’t exams be delivered in a different way? Why can’t we use technology to help solve the problem? In the vocational arena exams have been delivered as ‘test when ready’ for many years, including the CITB Health & Safety Test, in professional sectors such as accountancy, and of course the driving theory test. All are available when needed.

The real challenge is that it is easier for the awarding organisation to deliver exams in one sitting with one paper. You don’t have to worry about exams being comparable in the same year group because everyone takes the same exam at the same time. As soon as you move to delivering in more than one test window, or indeed test at any time, you need either multi-versions of the same exam, ie, ‘forms’, or you need to have a test that is created ‘on-the-fly’ from an item bank of questions.

The challenge with this way of doing things (and it is not an issue with technology as we know from other sectors,) is that you need to invest more money and effort up front, particularly with psychometrics and having a big item bank to ensure that the tests are comparable. While there are overall costs savings and efficiencies when it gets to delivery and marking, it becomes a fundamental way of changing the way awarding organisations work. It is never easy in any area and it would be difficult in a sector that is so heavily scrutinised and regulated.

Challenges and future

There are still some technical and logistical challenges: are there sufficient PCs and internet connectivity? (though bring your own device is being increasingly mooted as an option and broadband is pervasive); can students type quickly enough? (then again, can students write quickly enough is not currently asked apart from special allowances); and what do we do with students that take exams earlier than others? (extracurricular activities needed perhaps). But let’s start by at least asking the question.

To be fair technology is used in exams, based around the current delivery model. All the school exams currently use e-marking of scripts, where the scripts are scanned in large scanning centres and then work flow is used to manage the scripts to make the online marking process much more accurate and efficient.

However, technology is currently available where computer-marking of scripts can also be used and it can provide a more predictable result than human graders. I know I would rather have my exam paper marked by a computer than an over-tired and over-worked marker.

It certainly feels like technology has lots more to offer than is currently being explored.

The e-Assessment Association is a not-for-profit membership organisation based in the UK for consumers of, producers of and those with an interest in e-assessment. 

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