Ending paper exams – its about more than exams

Lots of news this morning about moving exams to computers and away from pen and paper, on the web, radio and in the papers.

I have to say that the sense of deja-vu is overwhelming, and those who went through the joys of Online KS3 Testing will probably be running for the hills already (sorry Sue). This is a massive issue which a short blog post will not do justice, but I just wanted say a couple of things that to me are quite obvious.

Firstly, this cannot be about a change to how current exams are taken. It can only ever work if it is about how students are assessed on their current knowledge and understanding of their learning to date. Why? Because as has already been pointed out by NAHT the possibility of having 300 computers working on the same thing at the same time in a school (and then having the same thing happening in thousands of schools) makes the idea of just computerising what currently happens a complete no-no. If anyone wants to argue with that contention, feel free, just don’t expect to draw me into it 🙂

More contentious is the argument that if it is about a change to assessment then it will also have to be about a change to other things, including how and when students are assessed and what they are assessed on. More than that it will be about how, what and when of student learning.

There will be people who argue that it is important that students still learn how to write with pen and paper. Let me state quite categorically so there can be no room for doubt – I completely agree with that argument. Of course I want my children to be able to write using pen and paper. Its a no-brainer. I work for a living  – mostly I use a laptop. But if I need quick notes, or I don’t have a computer I use pen and paper. Pen and paper is not going away anytime soon (if ever). The slight caveat to this view is that the growth of touch input devices has ther potential to make this argument invalid – but probably not this decade.

That, however, is not the point. The point is, how do we best assess students. Sometimes it will be best to do it using pen and paper tests. Sometimes it will be better to do using oral exams, sometimes it will be best using online tests of some kind. The online capability is currently limited, but its range is growing. What will be possible tomorrow we don’t know. My view is that we have to be ready to take advantage of whatever does come tomorrow.

Which brings me to my second point, which has the potential to upset a few people. This is not, in my view, a job for QCDA or any other governmental organisation. By all means they should champion the cause of changing the means of assessment, but that’s as far as they should go. We need a range of options to evolve, not the one-size fits all top-down approach we have seen before. The levels of security, the need for clean machines, the testing windows, the virtual systems – all this has to go. Set some guidelines, by all means, but don’t set guidelines that mean what you are trying to acheive is impossible. Do the systems need to be secure? Of course they do. As secure as GCHQ? Probably not. Do we need to have clean machines? Not if we expect schools to actually use technology for assessment purposes. The overhead is too great. We have to change the other parameters of the assessment and what we are assessing.

Which brings me back full circle. Its not about the technology. It is not a technology problem. Its about what, how and when we assess, which means its about the what, how and when of learning. Which means its about teaching. Lets make the conversation about that, rather than about encryption methods.

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