Assessment online - that must be a 'good thing' or is it?
By David Hanson
06 Dec

David Hanson has over 40 years' experience of teaching, has been a member of the ISEB Mathematics exam setting team and has written numerous titles for Galore Park, including the Mathematics for Common Entrance 13+ revision series. 

It seems that more and more assessment is being done online, rather than by traditional written papers. It has been predicted that written paper examinations (such as Common Entrance) will be a thing of the past by the middle of the next decade.
There are of course advantages in using online assessment, but there are also disadvantages.
Let us start by looking at the familiar types of question in Mathematics papers.
The instructions in the questions fall into several broad groups, including:
  • calculate, showing all of your working (where the working is essential and may earn marks should the answer be incorrect)
  • arrange, in order
  • fill in the gap/box with the missing number
  • circle/underline the correct value
  • circle/underline the odd one out
  • circle/underline all of (for example all of the numbers in a list that are factors of 24)
  • explain (showing understanding)
  • measure (for example an angle)
  • draw (for example a shape, or a line of symmetry on a shape)
  • rotate, reflect or translate (a shape)
  • plot (a point on a grid)
  • construct (for example a triangle)
  • draw the next pattern (in a spatial sequence)
  • complete (for example a statement or a drawing such as a bar chart)
  • solve (an equation)
  • name (for example a shape or angle)
  • list (for example the prime numbers between 20 and 30)
Many of the above would be difficult, if not impossible, to use in online testing, where the usual instruction is
  • choose one of the following
  • write in the value or word
Online assessments can be marked by:
  • a human - allows flexibility, but may be a little subjective and there is the possibility of human error in the marking
  • a computer - ruthlessly objective
Examples of online assessments marked by a human may be found in the online personal development courses provided by Centre of Excellence and other organisations, but this type of assessment is less likely to be found in online testing in schools.
An online assessment may perhaps allow a student to:
  • choose the order in which questions are attempted
  • go back and correct an answer
  • look over the completed assessment if time permits
  • work without a fixed time limit
But this flexibility is highly unlikely in testing at 11+ or 13+
The advantages of online assessment include:
  • savings of paper (trees), printing and distribution costs and time
  • ease of marking by computer, with instant results
Possibly the most common form of online assessment (and the one most likely to be used at 11+) is straight forward multiple choice, and this has its own advantages and disadvantages.
  • the correct answer is there for the student to see
  • there is a single correct answer
  • it is easy for student to answer - just a 'click', or recording a letter
  • difficulty in writing the questions so that all the distractors (incorrect answers) have some likelihood of being selected
  • difficulty in testing the whole range of knowledge, understanding and skills
  • inability to see the reasoning or working leading to the student's answer
In multiple choice questions the number of choices is perhaps most commonly four, with one correct answer and three distractors.
This means that a student with no knowledge, understanding or skills, who simply guesses the answer to every question should score about 25%!
As everyone who watches The Chase will be aware, quite often one or two of the distractors can be eliminated immediately by a just a little common sense and this can result in a guessed answer having a 50% chance of success!
We have not, so far, given a thought to the administration of an online assessment.
Some online assessments can be completed in your own time, at your own pace, at home on your own computer, but in schools it is most likely that all students will take the online assessment:
  • at the same time
  • using identical familiar computers
  • in a strictly controlled environment
This assumes that:
  • there are sufficient identical computers
  • all the computers are fully operational
  • there is an emergency procedure to be followed in the event of power failure or internet loss
Some students may be more 'at home' with traditional written papers and it is important that students have been allowed to practice using the same computers for similar assessments.
It seems that some online assessments have now been designed so that no two students get exactly the same questions. I can't see how this can be considered a fair test, but I imagine that someone has researched this thoroughly. In another type of online test, the computer adjusts the difficulty of later questions according to the student's success with the earlier questions.
There is no doubt that online assessment is here in a big way, it will be developed in ways that we cannot imagine, and it is here to stay.
But will online assessment give:
  • an equal chance to all students, whatever their confidence and expertise in using computers
  • a more realistic impression of a student's knowledge, understanding and skills?
So, is online assessment a 'good thing'? Time will tell.

If your child is sitting either the 11+ or 13+ we have a range of revision products and textbooks to prepare and guide them through the process. 




Tags: arithmetic, assessment, David Hanson, Exam tips, exams, future

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