Pens down: England’s exams regulator exploring online A-levels and GCSEs | Exams

Sitting exams using pen and paper could soon be a thing of the past, as England’s qualifications regulator, Ofqual, said it is exploring technology to transform the way GCSEs and A-levels are administered.

The regulator’s latest corporate plan says Ofqual will remove regulatory barriers to allow exam boards to study the use of remote assessment, digital delivery and “adaptive testing” software that tailors exam questions to student responses.

Ian Bauckham, Ofqual’s chair, said: “The pandemic has, rightly, catalysed questions about not if but when and how greater use of technology and on-screen assessment should be adopted.

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

School leaders said the use of exams delivered online could resolve security concerns and allow exams to go ahead in lockdown-style conditions in the future.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Our current reliance on a pen-and-paper exam 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scale with Fort Knox-style security arrangements around the transportation and storing of papers, is hopelessly outdated and ripe for reform.

“The recent experience of the pandemic has shown just how vulnerable it is to unexpected events. If online assessment had been available, it might not have been necessary to cancel all summer exams for two years in a row.”

But Barton and Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, both said Ofqual should take the opportunity for a more radical look at the use of high-stakes exams within the English school system.

“Education, and the proof of what a student has achieved in their time at school and college, is about far more than showing what can be remembered in an end-of-course exam,” Bousted said.

Ofqual said adaptive testing could replace the use of tiered GCSE exams – where simpler “foundation tier” papers are offered to those candidates thought unable to attain high grades.

Adaptive testing involves adjusting the difficulty of a test or exam to suit the aptitude of a student. When a student answers a question correctly they can be presented with progressively more demanding questions, and vice versa.

“We would know how difficult the questions are, which means that students taking different combinations of questions can be compared and graded,” a spokesperson for Ofqual said.

Adaptive testing is best suited to the use of multiple-choice questions or right/wrong answers in subjects such as maths.

“While there are no immediate plans to launch adaptive testing, it’s important that we carry out this initial exploratory work both from a technical point of view but also making sure we fully take account of the views of students, teachers and leaders,” the spokesperson said.

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