The future of testing?

16 May

I’ve been looking into language testing and language exams quite a lot recently, which is maybe why a recent piece on the “Click” podcast from the BBC caught my attention  (listen to the segment here).

The report is on the Nigerian state education system and in particular the way they conduct their exams.  Like many testers and examination bodies, they are constantly combating exam fraud and cheating – in some cases with “ringers” taking the exams on behalf of a less gifted / less confident student.

The solution they’ve come up with though, is possibly a model I would expect to see being rolled out further, not least in state education bodies, but I suspect also eventually in language testing.  My prediction for schools who are thinking about becoming open test centres for exam bodies, or who are looking into becoming computer based testing centres is to hold off the CBT for a while – it looks like the technology is about to shift on us, and any investment made now might well be superseded shortly.

In a nutshell:  the first aspect relates to candidate identification.  This is going to take place using biometric data with fingerprint and photographic matching, much like they do at UK airports, so they can be sure the person who registered to take the exam is the same as the person actually sitting it.  Secondly, exam rooms are going to be covered by CCTV cameras, remotely monitored and independently assessed.  Infractions can then be immediately attached to the relevant candidate and sanctions applied.

Most interestingly, at least from a testing point of view, is how the exams will be administered.  They’re going digital.  And not just digital, they’re going into the cloud.  Essentially, candidates will have a terminal, called a “thin client” that looks like a computer but isn’t quite.  What it basically has is the ability to connect to the internet and run programs there, rather than on the terminal itself.  This is basically the same technology that Google are using with their new “Chromebooks“.  This means the terminals are cheaper to manufacture, less liable to break and more energy efficient.  it also means the results will be available in half the time it currently takes and less liable to rater unreliability.

The great thing about the tech, at least as I understand it, is that the testing software includes a randomisation algorithm which means that they can ensure that no two people are doing the same question in the same room at the same time – or at least that you won’t be able to copy off the person sitting next to you.  It should be mentioned that the exams being administered at the moment are largely Multiple Choice Questions and therefore relatively easy to administer in this fashion.  It’s not clear how this would work for tests that require longer, extended, more subjective answers.  Or criterion based assessment.  But it certainly looks like the future of testing to me!

(The image comes from John Faig’s Blog – and a post on the connected classroom.)

For more detail on this story:

  • The BBC “Click” podcast discusses it in a bit more detail and has interviews with representatives of the two main companies involved in the implementation.
  • A BusinessWire story, which reads more like a corporate press release, also has more detailed information.
  • The Wyse Technology site has more information about “thin clients
  • There’s a pdf press release from the Electronic Test Company on the e-learning Africa website, whose conference will be taking place in a couple of weeks if you’re in or around Tanzania.  I can’t find an actual website for ETC, which seems odd, but then presumably there are security implications?
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