Computer-Based Assessments, what are they?
Louise Bailey, Research Manager at NFER, explores the benefits and challenges of computer-based assessment.
‘I’ve heard the term computer-based assessment, but I’m not exactly sure what it is…’
There are many complex definitions of computer-based assessment (CBA) but, taken in its simplest form, it involves assessing pupils by means of computers and electronic devices rather than on paper. Other terms used for CBA include onscreen assessment and e-assessment.
CBA can be used for a range of purposes including diagnostic, formative and summative assessment, and it is growing in prominence. Some higher-stakes assessments have already moved to onscreen delivery, for example, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been delivered onscreen since 2015 and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) moved onscreen in 2019. The International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (IB MYP) started as an onscreen assessment from the outset, whilst the 2021 cycle of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) gave participants the choice between either a paper-based or onscreen version of the assessment.
CBA has also begun to play a role in statutory national assessment programmes since Scotland and Wales have already introduced CBA for their national Primary and Secondary assessments. In England, the first national assessment containing CBA, the onscreen multiplication tables check, became compulsory for all schools from 2021-22.
How can CBA benefit assessment practice?
Onscreen assessments allow for more innovative types of question, for example, simulations and animations. These can be useful to assess understanding of scientific concepts as well as other practical and visual subject matter. Those containing multiple-choice style questions can be marked automatically with reports on pupil performance generated immediately, helping to decrease teacher workload as there is no need to mark pupils’ responses. Additionally, pupils’ wait time for results can be significantly reduced.
CBA can also be seen as an acknowledgement of the role that screens play in the everyday lives of children. Since they use computers, tablets and smartphones frequently outside school, using the same devices for testing could help to link school learning with their experiences in everyday life.
The use of computerised adaptive testing (CAT), covered here, may also be viewed as a positive development in onscreen testing. Such assessments can be tailored to the needs and abilities of individual learners and the testing burden reduced. CAT enables pupils to be routed through assessments in different ways to their peers, and to focus on questions suited to their individual levels of ability.
What considerations have to be made before moving to CBA?
Before implementing CBA within your assessment practice, consideration should first be given to how onscreen testing will fit into your school’s current assessment policy and whether it is actually the most effective assessment tool. Thought should be given to the validity of the assessment, for example, ensuring the subject can be adequately tested via onscreen assessment and that results generated will adequately meet their intended purpose. Other factors to consider include whether learners who have had limited experience of using digital devices will be disadvantaged in the assessments and, more generally, if the assessment will be accessible to all learners.
There are also logistical considerations. CBA requires schools to have sufficient computer equipment available for use and in full working order. This includes the need for the hardware and software used to deliver CBA to be robust enough to avoid technical glitches at crucial times such as examinations. Internet access is also often a requirement for CBA, therefore schools need to consider whether their internet network has sufficient bandwidth and reliable coverage, as well as secure connections. It is also important to ensure that all pupils have a similar level of familiarity with the devices to be used, to decrease the likelihood that results are affected by their technological proficiency.
Although careful thought is required when moving an assessment to onscreen administration, the benefits and the number of assessments already having made the switch make it likely that CBA will remain at the forefront of assessment practice.