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Friday, 25 May, 2001, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Tests changed after security breach
exam board
Exam boards will be checking scripts closely
By BBC News Online's Gary Eason

The question papers for the next series of the new Key Skills tests in a month's time are being replaced following a breach of security.

As part of a widespread review of the system prompted by the breach, the way the advanced level tests are carried out - spread over a number of days - is also likely to be changed.

BBC News Online can also reveal that the latest two-week series of tests, which ended on Friday, might have been cancelled halfway through - affecting tens of thousands of students - at an estimated cost of 5m.

Exam boards will be checking scripts for any irregularities that might be related to the leak.

As we reported exclusively a week ago, the security breach came about because a supposedly secret trial version of the question papers was put on a personal website by a teacher at Carmarthenshire College in west Wales.

Some students at another college were shocked to find that some of the questions were the same as those in an actual test they sat last week.

Dilemma

Our inquiry about this a week ago to the exam regulating body, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), produced a flurry of investigation.

The contents of the website were removed - the site itself remains active - after the head of the QCA, David Hargeaves, phoned the college's principal.

But the Key Skills tests at advanced level, taken by those doing A-levels and the equivalent in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, are unusual in that they are not all sat on one day: The latest series spanned two weeks.

So the dilemma for the QCA over the weekend, with a second week of tests still to go, was how widely the trial questions had been seen. It had to consider annulling the tests.

By Monday Mr Hargreaves had satisfied himself that not many people had visited the website - something over 200 - and his judgement was that the wider integrity of the test process had not been compromised.

The tests carried on.

Judgement call

Mr Hargreaves said a short time ago: "I had to balance two things - the nature of the evidence that was before me at that time and the disruption this would have caused to the examination process for a lot of young people.

"Against that I had in place contingency measures for each day that we passed through last week in case worrying evidence came to light.

"As it turns out I made the right judgement, which was not to over-react."

For security reasons he declined to be drawn on what those contingency measures were. All the security implications arising out of what happened are being reviewed.

The QCA is confident that its investigative team will be able to uncover any wider irregularities as a result of the leak. It remains possible that some of the tests sat might be annulled.

"We don't have full evidence yet," Mr Hargreaves said. "We will be looking at it very closely. Everyone involved has been very co-operative."

Review

Again, for security reasons he will not say just how closely the questions in the trial papers matched the actual questions used in the real tests.

But the QCA has felt it wise to drop the papers that were to have been used in the next series, due to start on 25 June.

"Happily the papers had not been printed so the cost of making the substitution is very low indeed," Mr Hargreaves said.

But the issue of the time period over which each series runs remains very much alive.

The reason given for it is that Key Skills are taken by people in a variety of settings - sixth forms, colleges and workplaces - and there is a problem of their all being available at one time.

"But I am considering whether the availability is far too long a period and is a threat to the integrity of the test, " Mr Hargreaves said.

"It's always a fine balance between trying to maximise the integrity and security of the test as against the convenience of colleges and candidates to get access to it - and we may have got the balance wrong."

See also:

25 May 01 | UK Education
25 May 01 | UK Education
25 May 01 | UK Education
23 May 01 | UK Education
21 May 01 | UK Education
22 Mar 01 | UK Education
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