Robo-exams are coming! That’s the headline the media failed to use, when the exam regulator Ofqual recently announced its investigation into taking A-levels and GCSEs online. But some of the reactions that day suggested people did feel as if this was a robots-gone-mad moment.
Almost everyone has memories of sitting in a boiling hot exam hall, hoping their pen wouldn’t run out before the paper ended. Those memories are so universal it’s almost become a rite of passage.
Hence, when I was asked by several of the shoutier radio stations to discuss the matter, I think most assumed I would be shocked at the very idea. But I wasn’t, and I’m still not.
Online exams are precisely the thing all exam bodies should be looking at carefully. And here are FOUR reasons why.
#1. Paper exams are bad for the environment
Each year, around 1.2 million young people sit multiple GCSE and A-level papers on printed exam papers and answer in thick answer booklets. As a child who insisted on only writing on every other line in exams, I probably used a small tree to achieve my route to university.
Not only do the papers need to be printed, but they are also couriered, with deliveries going out to thousands of schools, colleges and independent centres. And then the papers have to be couriered back for processing.
Sitting exams online is not without environmental costs. But with electricity increasingly coming from renewable sources, it is a more sustainable solution than cutting down trees to whizz them around the country in vans.
#2 Going online allows for adaptive exams, meaning teachers don’t have to guess which paper a student should sit
Given the range of attainment covered in GCSE exams, a single paper often can’t cover the entire grade range without the student sitting several long papers with even larger extensions for those who need extra time.
To get around this problem, exam boards offer ‘foundation’ and ‘higher’ papers, covering a smaller part of the grade range, and teachers have to predict which paper is most appropriate for the student to sit. Making this judgement is a gamble: if the student takes the higher paper and doesn’t achieve the minimum number of points, they won’t receive any grade. But if they take the lower paper, there is a cap on what grade they can achieve.
Online exams offer the chance to remove this gamble. Adaptive exams start with a question, and if the student can't answer it, the computer moves to an easier one. If the student can answer it, the computer moves to a harder question. Hence, the student sits a personalised paper within the range of questions that they can do.
While adaptive exams would not work for all content or for testing every type of skill – writing an essay on Shakespeare is not something that can be tested using adaptive assessment – there are huge potential benefits for developing adaptive assessments.
#3. Digital assessment reflects workplace skills
Although handwriting still matters - especially for note-taking and revision - it is worth noting that few workplaces would require an employee to create handwritten work for external consumption. When was the last time you read a handwritten report? Or wrote a formal handwritten letter? (Birthday cards don’t count!)
Schools aren’t mini-workplaces, but the fact that computers are an integral part of most jobs means it would be advantageous for it also to be part of assessments. Ensuring students use computers can also improve their digital literacy, helping to prepare them for the world outside of school
#4 More opportunities for resits
Finally, and this is my ultimate dream for the exam system. Online papers might make it easier for students who wish to resit.
Current GCSEs and A-levels suffer from a ‘one shot and done’ approach. For maths and English GCSES, resits are still available when studying at college, though even that has issues (e.g. changes in specifications between school and college). But for everything else, there are limits to the accessibility of resits.
We could go back to the modular system of the 2000s as it was onerous on schools, colleges and awarding organisations alike. Having enough space for pupils to sit uninterrupted exams at several points across the year was a headache – let alone all the other implications.
But I do think it should be easier to take a resit after the end of your GCSE or A-level course. As it stands, any young person who suffers a bereavement, trauma or ill health in the months around their exams might get a percentage increase on their exam, but their options to defer or retake are limited. Waiting an entire year is too long, especially when there isn’t easy access to ongoing tuition.
Plus, it should be easier for people who are older and need grades to access higher education to sit the tests more frequently. An ‘on-demand’ option which can either be taken at home, or delivered in digital centres which are open all year round, would be the absolute ideal to ensure this available.
At this point I know the naysaying will begin - and rightly so, debate and discussion is important. The technology isn’t there in schools. We don’t know the impact on children from different backgrounds. (Yet).
Hence we need a lot more investigation. But I genuinely believe that a world in which we can personalise the taking of exams is a world in which we start to take some of the unnecessary stress out of our qualifications system, while also making it more reliable and open to lifelong learners.
That has to be a vision worth fighting for: robo-exams, or not!
As part of AQi’s work, we are inviting people from a wide range of viewpoints to engage with us on a wide range of topics. We welcome alternative views to help stimulate discussion and ideas. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent the views of AQi or AQA.