Teachers back digital exams in principle, but school tech not yet up to scratch

Research by exam board AQA finds substantial barriers to digitising exams in England, despite support for the model

Research by exam board AQA finds substantial barriers to digitising exams in England, despite support for the model

Three in four teachers believe introducing digital exams in England would work if “challenges” are addressed, research by an exam board suggests.

But reformers face an uphill battle, with almost nine in 10 warning their schools lack the infrastructure to make digital exams work, and almost two in three believing they may exacerbate inequalities in opportunity.

AQA, the country’s largest provider of GCSEs and A-levels, polled more than 3,000 school staff through Teacher Tapp.

Although they found 81 per cent of heads and 64 per cent of teachers felt a move towards digital exams in England was “inevitable”, the report showed there are still some key barriers to cross.

The report pointed to “challenges” introducing digital exams in other countries. A project in Finland took six years and was described as “difficult”, with “big dangers that it could go wrong”.

AQA chief executive Colin Hughes is a proponent of digital testing, who has said it is “only a matter of time”, with the Covid-19 pandemic highlighting the need for “resilience in the system”.

The exam board launched a pilot of online GCSEs for up to 2,500 schools earlier this year, and announced it is preparing to make high-stakes exams available on screen by 2025.

Ofqual chief regulator Dr Jo Saxton also told Schools Week last year that it was “not a question of if, it’s where might we involve it more, and when” on using technology in exams.

Schools need upgrades for digital exams

According to AQA’s report, the biggest barrier cited by teachers in England was a lack of infrastructure to make digital exams work. Eighty-seven per cent of respondents said the infrastructure at their school would need upgrading.

Eighty-four per cent said they would need to “evolve” their school’s teaching methods to prepare students, while 68 per cent warned their students didn’t have access to sufficient technology at home to prepare.

It comes after Ofqual concluded in late 2020 that large-scale standardised tests could not be moved online in the “immediate future”, after a review found inconsistencies in school IT provision and unreliable internet connections.

Sixty-three per cent of respondents to AQA’s poll also warned that digitising exams could “increase inequalities in opportunity for students”.

This was demonstrated by responses on home technology. In schools with the most affluent intakes, 61 per cent of respondents said their students didn’t have sufficient technology at home to prepare for digital exams, compared to 86 per cent in the least affluent schools.

But if challenges with a digital exam model were addressed, 75 per cent of teachers said their introduction would be good.

Colin Hughes, AQA’s chief executive, said the report “demonstrates that most professionals regard the shift to digital as not only inevitable, but also desirable”.

“Yet it also highlights how we’ll only be able to get there if the whole sector works together.”

He said the move to on-screen exams “can’t be achieved merely by heaving on a great technological lever that transforms exams overnight”.

“We need to spend time trialling and piloting on-screen exams.”

Maths teachers less supportive

However, not all teachers felt the same about digital exams. In Finland, maths exams were last to be transferred to digital platforms, reflecting “scepticism” among teachers and the “increased technical challenges of implementing effective exams” in the subject.

Of maths teachers in England asked about digital exams, a lower 64 per cent said they would be good if challenges were addressed, with 26 per cent saying they would be bad, compared to 17 per cent of all teachers.

Eighty-five per cent of respondents said the first digital exams could be introduced in five years or less.

Asked about the benefits digital exams might bring, teachers were most likely to agree they would allow students to better edit their responses (53 per cent), followed by giving SEND students improved exam experiences (50 per cent).

But only 30 per cent agreed digital exams would better prepare students for their futures, while 25 per cent disagreed, and 42 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed.

AQA’s report set out five possible ways forward, as laid out by senior leaders in interviews. These ranged from a “big bang” approach, with all exams or the majority turned digital in a single year, to a “Build up” from key stage tests.

The report acknowledged that “some of the challenges in schools are gritty ones that will require creative solutions, carefully coordinated planning and targeted funding”.

“Significant change on this scale will, inevitably, not be easy but it should enable the next wave of school development, allowing students to experience a rich curriculum while also preparing for its application in a digital world.”

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