School hall full of exam desks and chairs

Ofqual to explore online testing for exams

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England’s exams regulator has announced it will explore the use of online testing as part of its plans for the next three years.

According to the regulator Ofqual, the move – set to take place over the next three years – could be the first step on the path towards online GCSEs and A-levels.

It said it will explore novel approaches to assessment, including the use of technology, and will work with exam boards to “explore the role of adaptive testing”, where digital exams automatically adjust to suit a candidate’s ability level.

Ofqual added it will “remove regulatory barriers where innovation promotes valid and efficient assessment”.

It plans to oversee the reintroduction of full public exams in 2022 while being “ready to implement contingency arrangements if needed”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the move away from “Fort Knox-style security arrangements” for exams.

“We are delighted that Ofqual is going to look at new approaches to exams, including the use of technology, and that it intends to work with the awarding organisations to this end,” he said.

He also stressed that the current reliance on a pen-and-paper system, organised at an industrial scale with Fort Knox-style security arrangements around the transportation and storing of papers, is “hopelessly outdated and ripe for reform”.

Barton added the pandemic revealed how “vulnerable” the assessment system was to unexpected events.

“If online assessments had been available, it might not have been necessary to cancel all summer exams for two years in a row,” he said.

Barton said the new online systems would need to be “carefully tested” to make sure they were reliable, and that headteachers felt that “technology in assessment is only one part of the picture, and that exams themselves need to change”.

He stressed there should be “less emphasis on a huge and relentless set of terminal exams”.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said that the regulator’s questions about assessment were “far too limited”, adding that a greater role for technology was “worth researching” but that public opinion showed many people felt using “exams alone” was outdated.

“Education, and the proof of what a student has achieved in their time at school and college, is about far more than showing what pupils can remember in an end-of-course exam,” she said. “Grades and assessments should reflect this, otherwise we are doing young people a disservice.”

Ofqual chair Ian Bauckham said: “The pandemic has, rightly, catalysed questions about not if, but when, and how, exam boards can adopt greater use of technology and on-screen assessments.

“All proposed changes need to be carefully assessed for their impact on students, including those with special educational needs and disabilities.”

Chief regulator Dr Jo Saxton said the plan expressed her “personal commitment that the interests of students and apprentices will be the compass that guides us on every decision and action”.

She added: “They will be our true north. I know the power of qualifications from my own personal experience and from my time working on the frontline of schools in some of the most disadvantaged areas in the country.”

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