Many of my discussions with senior leaders about on-screen assessment started in the same way – they looked around them and they talked about their own lives.
We were speaking on Zoom. A scattering of digital devices sat on their desks. They described how digital has become more central to teaching and school management since the pandemic. They talked about their students’ habits and attitudes - and sometimes those of their own children - and how they are digital natives whose lives and future careers have digital written through them like a stick of rock.
‘How can school examinations remain largely focused on pen and paper when the world has already changed so fundamentally?’ they asked.
I interviewed 51 senior leaders in schools up and down the country as part of the report ‘On-screen exams: what school leaders, teachers and students think’, which I was commissioned to research and write by the AQA.
In the quantitative research conducted via Teacher Tapp, we surveyed 677 head teachers and other senior leaders to ensure the interviews reflected the wider picture.
As you can see in the chart below, heads, senior leaders and the wider teacher base share very similar views about on-screen assessment – three quarters are in favour and 15-18% are against.
There are further reasons beyond the digitisation of life that supportive senior leaders give to justify support of on-screen assessment.
SLTs imagine new and creative approaches to assessment that would be enabled by digital technology. Applications could be used, maps brought to life, real experiments seen and commented upon. Without a move to digital, such innovative practices cannot begin to be developed.
Many feel that assessment has not changed significantly in a generation and that because examinations are so important, their influence is wider, holding back new thinking and approaches to teaching.
The needs of students with SEND are a focus for most senior leaders. They argue there would be two types of benefits: digital examinations would enable students with SEND to better demonstrate their learning and when all students are taking digital examinations, any stigma disappears.
They also look forward to more and better data. Test data is used within many schools to improve outcomes. Many senior leaders feel that deeper data direct from GCSE and A-level examinations would be a powerful tool in targeting interventions and improving results.
Some argued that adaptive assessment could be introduced digitally with different sets of questions delivered intelligently to reflect the ability level of the students taking the exam. This approach, some argued, would avoid the demotivating aspect of examinations set at standards that are either too high or too low for a particular student.
Senior leaders also foresee cost savings and environmental benefits.
But what about the senior leaders who reject on-screen assessment because they feel it would be a bad thing?
Two arguments dominated these discussions.
The most frequent was concern over fairness and equality. Pen and paper are open and available equally to all whereas some senior leaders, particularly those working in more deprived areas, have fundamental concerns about equality of access to digital technology, which they do not believe can be rapidly overcome.
They do not believe that there will be sufficient organisation, finance and political will to raise the quality of school technology and home access across the country to levels that will address these deep societal inequalities. Their fear is that digitisation of assessment will simply increase inequality.
The second argument is that the current system of assessment works well and that a move towards more student screen time due to on-screen exams will not improve educational outcomes.
These SLTs argued that digital skills can be built up naturally and should not be allowed to distract from a focus on building knowledge within a knowledge-rich curriculum.
Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the SLTs, teachers and parents who have the deepest concerns about a move to on-screen assessment.
The students themselves had few concerns. As one 15-year-old put it: “The whole world has already gone digital. It’s not exactly a surprise that we are going to start doing digital exams in the future.”
To read the full report go to https://www.aqa.org.uk/news/teachers-support-on-screen-exams-but-access-to-technology-is-the-biggest-challenge/