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Last Updated: Friday, 20 May, 2005, 23:27 GMT 00:27 UK
Online exam clicks with students
By Angela Harrison
BBC News education reporter

Pupils sitting a mock ICT test
Pupils normally have one 50-minute ICT lesson a week
Thousands of teenagers in England have taken online Sats tests in ICT for the first time.

They are guinea pigs for a national test which will become compulsory for 13 and 14-year-olds in 2008.

The trial is being run in more than 500 schools by the exams and curriculum watchdog, the QCA.

The organisation says it is the first time a national test has been sat online anywhere in the world.

Pupils at Chesham Park Community College in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, were among the first guinea pigs.

The 13 and 14-year-olds recently sat two, 50-minute tests which were delivered entirely online.

The tests are marked by computers. They are double-checked by humans but Karl, 13, found the idea rather un-nerving.

"I find that aspect a bit worrying - like computers are taking over the world," he said.

'Less stressful'

As for the tests themselves, pupils were happy to award them a good mark, saying they were fun, interesting, clear and more easy to understand than written tests.

Because they are typically taken in an ICT room, not a big exam hall, they also found them less stressful than other tests.

"It was not as hard as other tests, because you were not constantly writing, and there was more explanation than with some of the others," said Karl.

The tests are set in a virtual world, with specially-designed software, not standard programs used in many schools.

A mock ICT test screen
Pupils face a series of practical ICT tasks

When they log in, children see a number of graphical icons for such things as e-mail, spreadsheets, the internet and presentations.

They are told about their tasks one at a time by e-mail and have a set amount of time in which to complete them.

If they finish a task quickly they have to wait for the full time to elapse before moving on.

Their virtual world - set in a fictional town - includes a manufactured internet service.

Pupils might be asked to research a specific topic - such as finding all the current job vacancies in the town's newspaper.

They could then be asked to make a spreadsheet with the information they had found, or to find a picture and paste it into a text document. They might have to update a website or attach documents to e-mails and send them.


Kim, 14, liked this task-based, practical approach.

"I quite enjoyed it. It was good to be given the various tasks - such as using spreadsheets - as if you had a job."

Like many of the pupils here, she already has ICT skills many adults would envy.

"I enjoy the internet and researching stuff and enjoy making presentations, e-mailing, word-processing and doing spreadsheets, " Kim said.

Teacher and network manager at the school Margaret Gingell said the pupils were excited about taking part in the pilot.

"We all liked the idea of being part of this as it gives us a chance to give our opinions on it and help shape it for when it becomes compulsory," she said.

Margaret Gingell
Teacher Margaret Gingell watches pupils' progress online

Last year, at the first stage of the pilot scheme, the 90 schools involved each had a technical person sent in by the QCA to run the test. This year the schools ran the tests themselves.

"It was quite demanding. I was the only one here running it technically, but we are pleased we did it and it went well," said Ms Gingell.

During the test, the designated teacher sits at what is called the flight deck - a kind of command computer - and can watch how pupils are progressing through the test.

They cannot view individual answers, but can tell where pupils are up to. If a pupil has a technical problem, they can call the teacher by clicking on a button.

Children seem to like the design of the tests - they have taken to them like ducks to water
Martin Ripley, QCA
Next year, any school can opt to take part in the trials, which will continue until the test becomes compulsory in England's schools in 2008.

They need to meet certain basic technical requirements.

Schools will receive a detailed breakdown of how their pupils performed in the various parts of the test.

"This will be useful, because it will help us plan future teaching," Ms Gingell said.

"It will show us any areas of weakness."

The pilot tests have been running in schools over the past four weeks and QCA staff are pleased with how smoothly they seem to have passed off.

For Martin Ripley, the head of new strategy at the QCA, they mark a milestone.

"This is the first year that anyone in the education world has taken an online test.

"We've had a huge interest from schools. We had hoped to get 12,000 children to complete the tests over four weeks, but we have had three times that figure," he said.

"And children seem to like the design of the tests. They have taken to them like ducks to water.

"I think this is because it feels like a natural way to take a test for this generation."

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