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Wednesday, 11 May 2016

PUTTING PUBLIC EXAMINATIONS ONLINE




During the past couple of days, there has been a furore in the British press about leaked online tests for junior school pupils. The reality of what happened is not quite so serious as the media would have us believe. Pearson, the largest education organisation in the world, and the company responsible for the tests, mistakenly uploaded them too early to a dedicated website used solely by approved markers. This was only accessible by the markers themselves via a stringent and encrypted user-name/password combination. Apparently, one such person (subsequently deemed a "rogue marker" by the tabloids) then leaked some content to a journalist. Said journalist, showing a sense of responsibility and discretion for which members of his profession are not usually known, then informed a source in government. Unless the marker or the journalist leaked the test contents to anyone else, there was no breach of examination security. The tests were duly authorised to go ahead.

There is quite a bit to ponder on here. I know for a fact that CIE, (Cambridge International Examinations) with whom we exclusively work for our AS and A2 exams, have been seriously considering online variants for some time. Last year, when we were visited by a CIE inspector, he told me that AS and A2 online trials were already underway (in Mexico, if memory serves). In many ways, online tests make a lot of sense. They are quick and easy to administer; there is a much faster turnaround time for marking; they are paperless so that the need for expensive courier costs is removed, etc. The whole concept of flexibility, which such a system offers, could transform UK pre-university education. Potentially, students would be able to sit for a CIE examination at any time, assuming their teachers considered them ready and able to do so. This has the knock-on effect of providing more flexible timetabling, the early finish of schooling and a whole host of other factors. For the most part, these are big plus points.

Inevitably, there are negative ones too, some of them quite troubling. What happens, for example, in the event of a power cut? In my time as Headmaster of KYUEM, this has not yet happened during CIE exams, but we have had a couple of near misses (i.e. power outages either before or after exams, but so far, not during any of them, thank goodness). We have contingency plans in place (our own generator) but this would not be sufficient to cope with major IT crashes, let alone the delay and stress caused by a system restart. Then there is the whole area of security and hacking to consider. While the leaking of AS and A2 papers may not be the same as the recent revelations from Panama or via a Wikileaks whistle-blower, the potential for serious mischief and disruption should not be underrated. One of our Economics experts who attended a recent KYUEM Summit told me that he would never consider using online banking. He simply had very little confidence in the complete security of his account details.

I have mentioned Luddites in previous posts, and I don't wish to sound like a scare-monger here. If online testing at AS and A2 is the future, we have to embrace it and work with it as positively as we can. I am merely raising a few concerns about its viability that have not yet been satisfactorily dealt with, at least to my professional satisfaction. I think we can also assume that an organisation such as CIE will be more than happy to run online and pen-and-paper examinations concurrently for some time to come.

To finish, may I remind all parents of senior students that our annual Awards Day will take place on June 15? For parents of juniors and 18-month programme students, there is a Parents' Day scheduled for June 18, which is also the last day of the semester and the academic year.

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