Thousands of students in England will sit on-screen tests this year in a major pilot run by AQA, the country’s largest exam board, marking a big step towards online exams.
A second exam board, which is already running on-screen GCSE trials, has now said it is preparing to make high-stakes exams available on screen by 2025.
Under the AQA trial, up to 2,500 secondary school students from between 60 and 100 schools will trial online GCSE exams early this year. They will also take part in adaptive assessments where the difficulty adjusts as students move through the test.
The trials, reported to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, will provide evidence on how on-screen tests could work in future.
Colin Hughes, AQA’s chief executive, said a move to digital assessment was “only a matter of time”, with the pandemic highlighting the need for “resilience in the system”.
His comments echo Ofqual chief regulator Jo Saxton, who told Schools Week last year it was “not a question of if, it’s where might we involve it more, and when” on using technology in exams. The government appears to be supportive of the trials
Speaking to the BBC’s World at One, Hughes said barriers include a school’s location, the equipment they have and connectivity – all issues thrown up during the pandemic.
A report by Ofqual in 2020 found that large-scale standardised tests could not be moved online in the “immediate future”. The review found inconsistencies in school IT provision and unreliable internet connections.
The AQA trial will use a range of school sizes and types and their IT infrastructure will be selected.
Up to 1,500 students will complete the GCSE part of the pilot, with 45-minute tests in English, maths and two in science.
AQA wants to keep the “assessment burden low” for students. It will conduct a full programme of research to understand schools’ experiences.
AQA wants ‘pragmatic hard evidence’
Hughes said the trial costs were within six figures as it “wants real pragmatic hard evidence rather than speculative discussion” about online assessment.
He added that teachers and students have learnt “a huge amount” about online learning during the pandemic. Digital assessment can “enable improved fairness, along with richer data on learning and achievement, and potentially faster accurate marking”, Hughes added.
Exam board OCR, owned by Cambridge Assessment, is running trials of a “digital mocks service” of GCSE and AS assessments taken entirely on-screen in nine countries for three subjects, including computer science and history.
It is also preparing to make high-stakes exams available on-screen by 2025. A nine-month trial of “digital progression tests” in 16 countries, involving 1,500 students and 120 teachers, has just been completed.
Some of its Cambridge Technical qualifications have been available to sit on-screen since 2017.
But a spokesperson said that running a digital GCSE maths exam nationwide “raised important issues of equality and requires wider system change”.
The AQA trial will also include adaptive “smart” assessments, for key stage three and GCSE students.
The Times reported that sophisticated software allows questions to adjust in difficulty according to the performance of the candidate as the exam progresses, possibly removing the need for foundation and higher papers at GCSE.
‘Many factors need to be thoroughly considered’
Hughes said: “It’s not highfalutin technology, it’s available today. It has this enormous virtue that pupils can move through their own test in their own way and genuinely demonstrate what they can achieve in the time available.”
But a spokesperson for exams regulator Ofqual said: “There are many factors that need to be thoroughly considered and tested to protect the interests of students. So these changes clearly won’t, and shouldn’t, happen overnight.”
They will play a “central role” in making sure the use of technology for qualifications is “done properly and regulated appropriately”, the spokesperson added.
In a letter to the Times, Neil Roskilly, vice president and ex-CEO of the Independent Schools Association, said that “faith in computer technology can undermine confidence in pupils’ results”. A recent example was the 2020 exams fiasco.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said technology can be a “force for good in education”. He wants to “keep pushing at those doors to see where we can go further”.
Pearson Edexcel already offers a GCSE computer science exam online, as well as BTEC functional skills. A spokesperson said it will “continue to invest” in onscreen assessment.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL, said that technology could “have a big impact on the fairness of exams for students by making them more personalised and intelligent”.