Review finds exams cannot be moved online in the near future

Regulator picks out five major barriers to remote assessment

Credit: PA

Access to technology, security concerns, and staffing issues are among the major barriers that mean that A-levels and GCSEs cannot be moved online in the near future, a government review has found.

Exams regulator Ofqual has this week published the findings of a review aimed at exploring the current obstacles to the use of online assessments for “high-stakes qualifications such as GSCEs and A-levels”.

The study identified five such barriers which – while not insurmountable in the long-term – collectively make online tests an impossibility for the summer 2021 exam period.

The first of these is the availability of the necessary IT infrastructure, which “varies widely” across the education system, according to Ofqual.

“Different devices and browsers/operating systems could lead to compatibility issues with the tests and differences in performance, disadvantaging some students,” it added. “The cost of additional IT provision would be significant.”

The review also found “substantial local differences” in internet speeds to be a “major concern” – particularly in rural areas. A lack of sufficient specialist IT staff in schools was also cited as a barrier, as were issues with ensuring the necessary cybersecurity levels.

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“School and college experience was often limited to managing security for paper-based examinations and variability in IT infrastructure would make security risks difficult to manage consistently,” Ofqual said.

The final concern raised by the exams watchdog was the scale of the planning and coordination required to make a programme of national online exams a reality by next summer.

“The most effective approaches to introducing online/on-screen testing depended on large-scale, collaborative efforts, with clear system leadership, investment, piloting and a well-considered appetite for risk,” the review said. “Robust risk-management plans and mitigations and robust disaster recovery were needed. This would be highly challenging to implement in the timescales available.”

Ofqual took into account three sources of evidence: “a review of research literature; a workshop with informed stakeholders; and interviews both with experts and with leaders who have introduced on-screen or online assessments elsewhere – [such as] New Zealand, Finland and Israel”.

The review was launched prior to the coronavirus crisis – but has taken on added significance given that all GCSE and A-level exams across the country were cancelled last year, and may be so again in 2021. Wales and Scotland have already scrapped all exams for 16-to-18 year olds next year although, as things stand, tests are still due to go ahead in England and Northern Ireland.

“This work is particularly timely, with an increasing interest in online assessment,” Ofqual said. “The review, however, found five major barriers associated with taking this approach. None are insurmountable, given the will, but together they do confirm that we could not move large-scale standardised tests – such as A-levels – online in the immediate future.”

The regulator noted that, while the four jurisdictions of the UK exams landscape each has a “unique context”, there are some common issues they each will need to focus on to overcome the challenges at hand.

“Key themes include the importance of political support for any transition, commitment to a vision for the role that assessing on-screen or online plays in wider societal changes, and a well-considered approach to addressing the inevitable risks of implementation,” it said. “While the barriers to on-screen assessment at scale in 2021 are significant and likely insurmountable, this report is intended to stimulate wider discussion on the future role that the use of technology may play in improving the validity and security of high-stakes assessments taken in schools and colleges.”


Sam Trendall

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