The end of exams as we know it…

Ordinarily at this time of year in England, newspapers would be full of smiling teens jumping for joy and clutching envelopes full of GCSE, AS and A-Level results.  However, COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown has had a major impact on this annual ritual (among many others of course), with these end of years exams having been cancelled.  Traditionally, it is these end of term examinations that determine the overall grade for each chosen subject, however this year they were due to be replaced by an algorithm adopted by exam regulator Ofqual.  These new ‘centre assessment grades’ – defined by the Department for Education as:

‘the grade they would be most likely to have achieved had exams gone ahead – taking into account a range of evidence including, for example, non-exam assessment and mock results.’

have been received with scepticism and have forced awarding bodies across the UK to reassess how they are grading this year’s students.

Poorly received

A similar marking and adjustment scheme was used by the Scottish Qualifications Authority to assess students taking their National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher certificates and when results were announced earlier this month, accusations of unfair marking, and potential bias towards disadvantaged students were rife.  This meant that more students that ever were relying on the appeals process to get what they felt was a fair result and led to a public apology from Nicola Sturgeon on the matter.

Hence in England, there has been last minute U-turn, with ministers announcing the day before AS and A-level results were due to be released that students who are unhappy with their grades can choose to use mock exam results instead.

So, does this year of forced experimentation around alternative assessment routes reveal anything about the role of the exam in the future of education?  One option touted as the solution to the current exam problem are online examinations.

Whilst online exams (also known as e-assessments) have been taking place for years, the current global crisis has catapulted the topic into headlines across the globe, with some organisations quickly opting to adopt the technology to conduct end of year examinations.  So, let’s explore the benefits and challenges of using this technology.

Benefits

Location – Online examinations can be taken anywhere, as long as there is a suitable device and an internet connection.  Many online examination providers ask for further conditions such as being the only person in the room and having a clear desk to avoid any accusations of academic misconduct.  The benefits of this more flexible location means that students do not have to travel to exam centres or schools (with the associated environmental benefits) but can take examinations from the comfort of their own home, or office for professional qualifications.

Accessibility – Reduced reliance on traditional exam halls and test centres mean that students with disabilities or special learning needs can be more easily accommodated.  This can range from reduced stress due to unfamiliar environments, to better access to specialist facilities within their own home than a traditional test centre in their area might have.  Additionally, the online nature of these exams means that they can be adjusted more easily for different needs (such as increased font size, differing coloured backgrounds etc.) compared to pen and paper tests.

Digital first – Much of modern learning is now completed via computers, so some argue that switching back to pen and paper tests actually set test takers at a disadvantage.  This coupled with the time and costs savings made by awarding bodies and exam administrators by not having to print, distribute and mark paper-based exams explains why online and computer-based examinations are becoming increasingly popular.

Challenges

Academic dishonesty (aka cheating) – One of the most frequently raised objections to online examinations, especially those being undertaken in private spaces are the opportunities available to cheat the system.  Most e-assessment systems include measures to counter this, including ID verification, multiple camera room observation and AI eye tracking systems.  Commonly, online or remote proctors are used to assess and continually observe the exam taker’s environment and look out for any additional notes, people or dishonest behaviour, much as they would in an in-person exam.  However, there are a plethora of articles, blog threads and YouTube videos showing how dishonest candidates might circumvent these security measures, so some doubt is still cast on the integrity of these exams.  A number of awarding bodies have also reported an increase in pass rates since the adoption of remote invigilation.

Candidate privacy – The need for all the technology outlined in the previous point, including access to student’s cameras and computer has understandably raised questions about privacy and data protection.  Whilst the companies providing online exams are producing detailed policies and procedures, incidents of data breaches are still being reported.

Inclusivity – Whilst in many ways online examinations have make the assessment process more inclusive, it is also important to consider the ways in which this type of assessment might exclude certain candidates if it were to be made mandatory.  Starting with access to the basic technology and internet connections which not all students may have, it’s also important to consider that some students might not have access to a private space to conduct an online exam, or the required quiet/calm situation needed to perform to the best of their abilities.  Additionally, there have been concerns raised that some AI based exam systems are unintentionally biased against certain ethnicities.

A return to normality

As lockdowns are starting to be lifted, we are seeing a big return to large-scale examinations being taken in venues around the world.  Whilst online examinations might have seen an upturn during 2020, we expect that exam venues and test centres will still be key in coming years for providing a high-quality exam experience to candidates.

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