Digital NCEA exams – we’re not quite there yet

A server crashing with an hour to go in the exam room is the latest hiccup in the drive to have NCEA exams available online within the next two years.

More than 3600 students sitting NCEA Level 1 English exam online found themselves with nothing to do but stress when the Australian-based server failed two hours into their exam on November 12.

The glitch was found and repaired, and affected students - a number reported being stressed out by the experience - were given additional time at the end of the exam to complete their work. Some students had the opportunity to switch back to using paper to complete the exam.

8.5% of Level 1 English students affected

The 3631 students were part of a group sitting the exam digitally, about one student in twelve of the near 43,000 L1 English exam participants. They were from 38 schools around the country which had chosen to be part of the digital exam pilot.

NZ Qualifications Authority (NZQA) who ran the digital pilot exams, was working with its provider, SoNET Systems from Australia to find out why the server failed. The qualification provider has been having various issues with the digital exam process since trials began in 2014.

Last year 258 students received zero marks for their L1 and L2 Classical Studies, Media Studies and English exams with this emerging only when results were sent out.

Also, the number of schools involved in the online trials for any NCEA subject dropped from 55 last year to 52 this year.

Target: all NCEA potentially available online by 2020

NZQA has set a target of having all NCEA exams available online by 2020, but said in October that it would still offer only 14 of the 61 NCEA subjects online in 2019. Some subjects are unlikely to go online until after 2020.

More: here’s the background to what NZQA is doing

Pilot leaves both answers and questions

There is plenty to be done before schools and students are ready to totally embrace NZQA’s digital vision for exams. Will students need to being their own devices or will they be provided? If own devices are to be used in exams, will we see some creative cheating going on? Will schools be able to provide the resources for hundreds of students to charge their devices during exams? 

And how will the NZQA keep remotely operated servers from crashing, running slow at crucial times, or even being hacked?

On the evidence of the last few years of trials and pilots, the assessment on NZQA's digital path might rate as needing further work yet.

 SL, Nov 2018