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24 years ago we moved a big exam from paper to on-screen

24 years ago today (4th January 2000) saw a UK high-volume, high-stakes exam move from paper delivery to on-screen.

Moving a test on-screen is quite the story. With the compulsory driving test launching in 1935, the Theory Test was decoupled from the Practical Test on 1 July 1996. Prior to then, the examiner would ask candidates questions from The Highway Code during the test.

With the test moving to separate, independent test centres run by career-professional invigilators, the examiner had no say in the test outcome. It also helped to reduce practical test 'seat time', so more candidate capacity was realised, and wait times shortened.

Test papers are created from an established item bank. This meant examiners couldn't determine for themselves if you got an 'easy' or 'hard' question. A big boost for fairness and bias reduction.

In 2000, the Theory Test was moved on-screen. Instead of paper answers being checked, the computer system auto-scored the candidate's answers. This means marking is calibrated against the key/ correct answer. Potential human error is removed, the grading process is accelerated, and a digital audit trail of the service encounter is provided.

With annual test volume around 1.5M (2.8M in 2022, or 11k per working day), the tech infrastructure behind the Theory Test in 2000 is not dissimilar to what's proposed for England's school digital exams from 2025. A local server receives test files overnight, for distribution to off-line terminals the following day. Auto-scoring is delivered at the centre, full-day results are uploaded at close-of-business. A method perfected in the mid 1990s!

Many other large exams have been digitised at scale in the last quarter of a century. We've seen real improvements in accessibility, SEN provision, security, and audit. That means fairer and more equitable exams are available to more people. The pioneering work to move a big exam on-screen will have currency for many more years. 24 years ago today, it should be acknowledged as the trailblazer it undoubtedly is.


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