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Taboos and Fairy Stories - How will schools adopt digital exams?

In the last 12 months, England’s schools have been busy. Post-pandemic working, juggling budgets, but also figuring out digital exam delivery. Here’s what’s currently on the table:

  1. Initial rollout. AQA intend to introduce digital exams for the reading and listening components of GCSE Italian and Polish by 2026.

  2. Expansion to major subjects. AQA is aiming for at least one large-entry subject (e.g. GCSE English) partially assessed digitally by 2030.

  3. The sector moves together. Pearson have International GCSE delivered on-screen, the four-facet digital Test of English, and by 2030 will have all GCSEs offered digitally or by paper. WJEC have called out 5 subject areas for digitising. OCR will offer a digital GCSE Computer Science. International Baccalaureate will digitise their Diploma Programme.

  4. Parallel digital and paper delivery. Two modes. Individual exam papers or components will be either fully digital or fully paper-based, not mixed.

  5. Parallel online and offline delivery. Some exam owners will deploy to offline devices, from a local server. Others will deploy online, with safeguards such as lockdown browsers.

  6. Incremental use of digital formative and diagnostic assessment. Used extensively in Wales and Scotland, to drive familiarity and remove infrastructure barriers. ‘SATs, but not SATs’.

  7. True digital assessment. Not ‘paper-behind-glass’, but assessment tools commonly used in non-school environments, that are usually regulator-approved.

The benefits of digital exams are often poorly articulated, but the main ones are:

  • Enhanced accessibility for learners with special educational needs

  • Upgraded efficiency in exam creation, distribution, delivery, and marking.

  • Improved quality and bias reduction.

  • Transparency for every part of the exam journey.

  • Reduced environmental impact compared to paper-based exams ‘on the desk’.

What's the current discourse? Headteachers and teachers are the least engaged and unfavourable to digital exams. With day-to-day teaching, operations, and other issues they simply don’t have space to process the benefits, and how change is broadly positive. There appears to be no coherent vision for them to buy into.

The narrative usually lapses into lazy anecdote, not by evidence. Journalists prefer ‘the easy and quick deal’ of quoting a shrieking calligraphy enthusiast, rather than the true stories offered by (digital) assessment trade bodies and their international membership.

When it comes to digital exams, journalists still prefer shrieking calligraphers, not trade bodies.

What are the taboo subjects around digital school exams? The largest taboos are around kit and capacity. Namely,‘Who is providing the computers?’, and ‘Our school hasn’t got the space.’ The logistics of off-siting (digital) exam delivery and providing kit are unspoken.

Commentators and social media darlings lapse into lazy, uninformed tropes; usually about the ‘march of the robots’. Policy folk too easily fall back to their own school and university exam lived experiences. Dogmatic educators use social media to catastrophise fact-free scenarios as beliefs.

But all go missing and mute on the taboos. Casual invigilation, grade accuracy, human marking, maladministration, proxy testers, grade guesstimates, coursework coaching, and other assessment fairy stories they go along with for an easy life. To the universal detriment of all learners. Remember: digital shines a harsh and unforgiving light on all of this.

Commentators, social media darlings, and policy folk all go mute on exam taboos. It's easier to believe the assessment fairy stories.

What’s the short-term plan? Expect yet another re-run of the trials/ proof of concepts and small scale deployments we saw in the early 00’s. Ironically, on the same IT architecture as 20 years ago. An incoming UK government will have assessment as part of wider curriculum reform, albeit.

Both Conservative and Labour parties have pledged curriculum reform, and assessment will be part of that. Policy folk will understand much more, understanding the sector vista and dynamics. But when more countries adopt digital school exams, these successes will be disregarded and ignored, to avoid embarrassment.

So, what should we look out for? The debate has inched forward since England first targeted digitisation 20 years ago. But here are five areas to watch:

  1. Forming of Centre/ School readiness programmes.

  2. Gaining ‘digital familiarity’ via formative assessment deployment.

  3. Understading dual paper and digital delivery.

  4. Breaking taboos on off-site delivery and IT kit.

  5. Convincing headteachers and educators that digital benefits more learners, not fewer.


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