The regional examination body, CXC, plans to move from paper-based to electronic testing. A number of challenges are anticipated, which will affect its successful realisation.
Over the past two weeks or so, the regional high/secondary school examination body, the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC), announced its intention to make all of its examinations electronic and paperless. According to a post on CXC’s website, the organisation plans to pilot electronic testing platform during the week of 25 April, and launch this platform for all January 2017 Caribbean Secondary Education Certification (CSEC) multiple choice examinations. Further, by 2018, CXC is expected to administer all of its examinations electronically (Source: ZIZ Online).
By way of context, and as stated previously, CXC is the regional examination body, which develops syllabi and administers examinations in a broad range of subjects at the high/secondary school level (grades 7–13). Its syllabi are followed in 16 across the region: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago and Turks and Caicos Islands.
Currently, CXC has six main examination certifications, but the most popular and widely used are:
- CSEC, which is equivalent to the historical Ordinary (O) Level and usually taken in Grade 11 (Fifth Form), and
- the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE), which has replaced what used to be the Advanced Ordinary (AO) and (A) Levels examinations, and taken in Grades 12 and 13 (Lower and Upper Sixth Form).
At the CSEC level, CXC tests 33 subjects, whilst at the CAPE level, 29 subjects are tested. Further, within an academic year, between 130,000 and 150,000 candidates sit CXC examinations, with about 575,000 to 620,00 subject entries.
Without a doubt, the move by CXC to electronic testing at the secondary school level, especially among the grades 11–13 cohorts, is an awesome undertaking, which may be consistent with what obtains in more developed countries. However, as worthy a goal as it might be, there are a number of challenges, a few of which are outlined below, that will affect the extent to which meaningful success is realised across the region.
Availability of computing devices to administer examinations
Most secondary schools across the region may now have a dedicated computer room. However, in many instances, it is relatively small when compared with the student population, or even the student complement per grade level. Frequently, the impetus to establish the computer room was for the teaching of computer-based subjects, such as IT and Electronic Document Preparation and Management. Classes in other subjects generally would access the facilities on an ad hoc basis, subject to availability. Essentially, the computer rooms in most schools would be unable to accommodate all of the students – across an entire grade – who may need to sit a particular examination. This is especially likely to be the case for Mathematics and English language, which are compulsory subjects that all candidates are required to take.
It may be argued that the tablets-in-schools; one-laptop-per-student, and other similar initiatives that have become popular around the region could solve the problem, by increasing the number of computing devices on which students could sit their examination. However, in practice that may not be the case, as one of the more troubling issues that has emerged following those initiatives is in relation to the maintenance and repair of those devices. Although Caribbean governments have been able to secure from international donors computing devices for schools and individual students, in most instances, they are unable to finance a system through which those devices can be maintained and serviced on a regular basis, thus resulting in a rapid deterioration of their useful life.
Thanks to the policies on Universal Access/Universal Service in telecoms that have been established in most Caribbean countries, the majority of schools, especially at the secondary level, have Internet access. However, whatever bandwidth that typically is provided to a school, for example for use in its administration and in its computer rooms, it may not be adequate when scores of students are sitting examinations simultaneously.
The matter is severely compounded if examinations are to be administered from the cloud, which is likely to be a preferred approach, for improved security and more efficient test management. In that scenario, continuous and reliable Internet access is critical, so that candidates’ work/answers gets saved in real time, and the system can provide to the candidate continuous feedback if needed..
As currently designed, the main CXC examination papers – the multiple choice, short answer questions, and the essay/long answer questions – have been developed for paper-based delivery and testing. However, in moving to an online testing modality, the examinations themselves, which CXC envisages will incorporate multimedia elements, will require examinations and the question papers to redesigned.
Candidate typing proficiency
Although this point may seem trivial and it might not be an issue for multiple choice papers, which will be the first set examination papers that will move to online testing, as of January 2017, it ought to be noted that the longer term plan, and as early as 2018, is to have all examinations delivered electronically. For the short answer and essay papers, the typing proficiency of candidates – the speed at which they can type their answers – could affect their performance. To remedy this, students will need to learn and to practise their typing, which again based on the limited availability of computing devices in schools, specifically, PCs, laptops and tablet computers, could be a major handicap for both students and their schools.
In summary, it is likely that in the first instance only select schools will be able host CXC examinations that are being tested electronic. They are likely to be the more affluent schools that have a high computing device-to-student ratio, and can undertake whatever needed infrastructural upgrades might be necessary for successful delivery of examinations. Schools on the other side of that digital divide are unlikely to have means to put all of the requisite systems in place.
It is therefore likely that into the foreseeable future, CXC will not be able to abolish its paper-based testing methods, as all schools, and by extension all countries, will not have all of the requisite systems and requirement to support electronic testing from the outset. Further, there may also be a need to have to have paper-based tests available as a backup should the electronic format fail, which is likely to happen from time to time.
Image credit: Alberto G (flickr)