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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 August, 2004, 05:46 GMT 06:46 UK
Taking exams in cyberspace
By Seonag MacKinnon
BBC Scotland education correspondent

"Turn over your papers now" is a phrase seared on the soul of anyone who has ever sat an exam.

Exam - generic
Teachers have given the idea a mixed reaction
But Martyn Ware, the Scottish Qualifications Authority's computing business manager, says the thousands of pupils across Scotland set to receive their results next week are likely to be among the last generation to sit traditional exams with pen and script.

"I think ultimately we could be looking back on the sort of exams and tests we use now and wondering how and why we ever ran such a system," he predicted.

Surely some mistake. Exams will not be the same if you do not sit at a desk in an examination hall, watching the clock and chewing on a pencil.

But the SQA, like its counterparts in other countries, is piloting exam papers in cyberspace.

The argument is that a 19th century cottage industry is operating at present.

Candidates have to wait months for the results while teachers mark scripts from home at their kitchen tables.

Flexible system

Thousands of papers shuffle between offices, warehouses and printers until eventually certificates arrive by snail mail through your door.

Mr Ware says a quick flexible system means children can reach their full potential, as they will not be harnessed to the learning pace of their classmates.

"At the moment tests are delivered when it suits schools and when it suits the SQA to run tests," he said.

"Increasingly that is, I think, untenable and unsustainable.

Anything that frees teachers from marking to allow them to do something else is beneficial
Dorothy Graham
St Ninian's High School
"Candidates for our qualifications should be offered the opportunity to take assessments when they feel they are ready for them rather than on a certain day when the SQA or the school feels that they are ready for them.

"We hope and we think that will give them the ability to demonstrate their maximum ability and to attain to the highest possible standard they can."

Dorothy Graham, of St Ninian's High School in East Renfrewshire, said there had been a mixed reaction from teachers.

"They felt that actually marking the assessments themselves gave them information that would inform future learning and teaching.

"But on the other hand, anything that frees teachers from marking to allow them to do something else is also beneficial.

Advantages for boys

"I think it is fair to say that in modern languages, to my knowledge, there is no computer that can take the place of a linguist when it comes to interpreting the nuance of language."

Her colleague Moira Reynolds said that the new method works.

"I think it helps them to focus more," she said.

"They can concentrate better and I think it has particular advantages for boys.

Unless there are very strict controls on the various sites that you can access there plainly has to be a risk of cheating or extra information being available to students
Ronnie Smith
EIS general secretary
"I think they respond well to it, that has been my experience."

But there is no need for panic in the staff room.

The SQA says that online exam papers, currently limited to those normally marked by pupils' own teachers, will be phased in over many years, running in tandem with traditional methods.

The SQA said there was much research to be done before open-ended answers could be marked using computers.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), said implementation has to take time.

Unions said there must be safeguards in place
Provision of computers and staff training is just too patchy at present, he argued.

But will the new system be a patch on the old system?

Interim results from the trials suggest online testing makes little difference to candidates' results.

But could handwriting become a lost art and could the system be a cheat's charter, with candidates logging on to spell checks and search engines in search of the right answers?

Mr Smith said exam bodies need to come up with answers of their own.

"Unless there are very strict controls on the various sites that you can access there plainly has to be a risk of cheating or extra information being available to students," he said.

"That is why I say that the security of the system has to be absolutely 100% so that everybody can have confidence that this is a secure method of assessing our pupils."

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11 Nov 03  |  Education

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