5 Nov 2014

Computers used in NCEA for first time

10:15 pm on 5 November 2014

End-of-year school exams start on Friday, and for the first time some students will use computers to sit their exams.

The 13 students are taking the first steps in a process the Qualifications Authority said will eventually lead to most external exams being computer-based.

student and computer

The Qualifications Authority says students use headphones to listen to questions and can sit their exams in the same room as other students. Photo: PHOTO NZ

The authority said the students have difficulties reading and writing and earlier this year trialled using computers instead of people to read their exam questions and write their answers for them.

The head of Special Programmes at Hutt Valley High School, Robyn Deverall, said the trial went well.

"The students liked having the reader, in particular, because they could get the computer to read a question to them as many times as they liked and it avoided the embarrassment factor of having to ask an adult to read to them again and again."

However, Ms Deverall said there were a few problems with entering answers into a computer, rather than telling a writer what to put on the exam paper.

"Sometimes their spelling is so poor that their answers aren't up to scratch - they write more if they have a writer," she said.

Robyn Deverall said a computer-based exam also gives students no indication of how much they are expected to write.

"If you've got a hard copy of an exam you can see a large space that tells you how much you've got to fill up, whereas in the electronic version there was just a little space so the students didn't necessarily know they had to write a long answer."

The Qualifications Authority's deputy chief executive qualifications, Richard Thornton, said it had not planned to use the technology in this year's exams.

"The initial plan was that we would keep it to the school practice exams, but the response has been so positive from the students who actually did it that they said can we please use this in our external exams."

Mr Thornton said the Qualifications Authority sent the 39 standards the students are sitting in their exams to a Canadian company to turn into a secure digital format.

He said the authority is confident it can use computers instead of reader-writers for more students next year - which is just as well, given the increasing number of students requesting such assistance.

"The number of students who are qualifying for special assessment conditions is increasing every year," he said.

"It's gone from three, three-and-a-half thousand, to four to five-and-a-half thousand this year. We are predicting that will continue to grow and if you don't have a digital solution its going to be very very difficult to provide the readers and the writers."

Richard Thornton said another advantage of computers is that students use headphones to listen to questions and can therefore sit their exams in the same room as other students.

Mr Thornton said eventually computer-based exams will be available for all students, not just those who have trouble reading or writing. However, he said that is at least three to five years away and not all subjects or standards will be suited to digital exams.

Exam facts and figures

  • Scholarship exams start on Friday with Drama
  • NCEA exams start on Monday
  • Exams finish on 2 December
  • 143,000 students will sit the exams in 400 exam centres
  • 1800 markers will grade 1.4 million exam scripts
  • NCEA exam marking will be finished by Christmas, with results available in mid-January
  • Scholarship results will be available in mid-February

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