Marking in cyberspace

This year, exam-markers are going on line - and e-assessment is getting top marks
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The Independent Online

Revision guides are sold out, desks are set out in rows - the nation is about to undergo the annual convulsion in the school timetable known as exam time. Are we in for more headlines about lost papers, more despair at the creaking nature of an overburdened system?

This year, however, fingers are crossed that that won't happen. There has been one significant change - more marking than ever will be done on computers. The exam board Edexcel, whose takeover by the Pearson publishing group means it has had money to invest in e-marking, is leading the way by arranging for 20 per cent of its scripts - one million papers - to be marked on screen this year.

The papers will still be scratched out in varying degrees of legibility in draughty school halls, and for teachers and pupils the process begins in time-honoured fashion ("Turn your papers over now"). But this year, after the scripts are collected up, those destined for computer marking will be sent not to an examiner, but directly to Edexcel. They will be scanned, captured digitally and sent out to markers, either in special centres or at home. The markers do their job on screen, the computer adds up the marks (no chance of human error there), and the markers press a button to send the results back to the exam board.

Edexcel's head of corporate affairs Frank Wingate is keen to call this on-screen, rather than on-line, marking, to avoid confusion. There have been trials in which actual exam papers have been put on screen, transmitted to schools and downloaded for use, thereby computerising the entire process, but it's not happening with GCSE and A-level exams this year.

Even at this stage, says Wingate, the benefits are clear. "We're talking about accuracy and security," he says. "There's a dramatic reduction in the number of scripts flying about the country. It's more secure - far more secure than going through the post."

Kevin Tanner, a senior examiner in GCSE maths, has been putting pen to paper and totting up results for 15 years. Though initially apprehensive, he is now enthusiastic about the new system, having taken part in Edexcel trials last autumn and this spring. "It's significantly faster and more accurate," he says. "Now, 15 per cent of all papers are double-marked. Under the old system that didn't happen - we could only ask for marking samples. If the sample was OK the marker would be given the go-ahead. Now, we can look at the work of any examiner any time.

"We can also mark, say, 100 answers to the same question, one after the other. That means the mark scheme for that question is very much in your head and you mark more accurately. This really helps to ensure that all examiners are applying marks consistently."

The newfangled system has even found favour with older, retired teachers who admit they are not as computer-literate as students. One reported that he was dreading using the system but in the end found it easy to use.

Schools should also ultimately get more feedback, because the computer automatically tots up useful statistics such as the percentages of correct responses. On-screen marking won't help just yet with that other annual headache - the shortage of markers - because about the same number will be required this year. It may, however, help in the future.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which oversees the exam system, is behind the push to get more on screen. Its head, Ken Boston, is a known enthusiast. He hopes it will help to modernise what he describes as a "Dickensian system... 24 million scripts to be hand-marked on kitchen tables and then moved about the country at the whim of the Post Office."

But with some GCSE exams likely to be fully computerised in less than two years, the QCA is keen to demolish what it sees as the new myths springing up around e-assessment. Chief among those is that all exams will be on computer: it is proposing a "mixed economy" for the foreseeable future, with some on paper and some on line. Another misconception is that all exams will become multiple-choice.

"There are still public perception issues," says QCA's head of assessment policy Martin Ripley. "If people think it's all about multiple-choice that's not helpful. It is sometimes that way in the US, but that's because they started out with more multiple-choice on paper, and transferred it on line."

He thinks e-assessment will mean a richer exam diet: not only will there be questions where essays are required, but interactive and click-and-drag techniques will offer more colourful, stimulating and complex scenarios than paper ever could.

"We've been looking at science experiments in which nine-year-olds try to grow the world's tallest sunflower using either Plant Food A or B," he says. "They can actually see the flower grow - it's a virtual world, an enticing display that's very motivational."

Speed is another benefit of e-systems. "At the moment it takes up to three or four months for students to get the results of public qualifications," says Ripley. "On one set of pilots we did, we moved it down to between seven and 10 days. Technically it is possible to give students their results straight after they have completed a test, but we won't always be doing that in the real world because teachers need to go over results with students, and awarding bodies need time for quality checks."

And ultimately, of course, schools will be able to choose when to download and take exams - dismantling what Boston has called the "well-worn rhythms of the school year". If a school chose not to take an exam in May when half its pupils suffered from hay fever, it would not have to do so. A reform of the system whereby universities accept students on predicted, rather than actual, grades, would then become hard to oppose. Already, says Ripley, e-assessed vocational qualifications are showing how customers will vote with their feet, or at least their PCs, for the schedule they want. City and Guilds qualifications offered on line are far more popular on Saturdays, and the favourite month for people to take them has turned out to be March.

The QCA envisages that, by 2009, e-assessment will become normal for thousands of school students each year. If that change is managed in small enough steps to allow for adequate assessment and to enable schools' IT systems to keep up, it's hard not to see it as a positive development. It might even give the child with bad handwriting a helping hand - computer screens can magnify text, making it easier for the markers to disentangle. For the moment, though, if you think your child's exam is being computer-marked, try and persuade them not to use what examiners call "fancy multicoloured pens". The scanners pick up old-fashioned blue and black much more easily. So there will still be ink-blotted fingers and chewed biros this year - nothing changes that fast.