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Exciting news about technology for SQA assessment arrangements

Posted by Paul Nisbet on the 13th March, 2023

Category Digital Exams Speech Recognition

Learners in secondary schools in many parts of Scotland have been provided with personal Chromebooks or iPads, but our research has found that students are not generally able to use these devices in examinations. We have been asked by SQA to establish working groups to find solutions and this blog post gives some background and progress so far.

Technology for assessment arrangements

In 2005, CALL was commissioned to research the use of assistive technology for learners in external examinations. At that time, the most requested type of support for examinations (after extra time and separate accommodation) was a human reader and/or scribe, and our research focussed around whether technology could provide learners with a more independent method of support.

We researched and developed Digital Question Papers and conducted trials with learners between 2005 and 2007, and following these successful pilots, Digital Question Papers were first offered as an Assessment Arrangement by SQA in 2008. Most of the other UK awarding bodies followed SQA’s lead by offering digital papers in 2014.

The use of technology as assessment arrangements has since developed considerably and technology is now a more commonly requested arrangement than readers and scribes. 30% of requests for Assessment Arrangements included technology or Digital Question Papers in 2022. 

Line graph showing an increase in the number of requests to use technology between 2018 and 2022

This is a positive development in terms of the four capacities of curriculum for excellence: for many learners, sitting external examinations is their final action before leaving school and in our view, having your examination questions read to you and your answers written down by a teacher is not optimum in terms of developing confidence and responsibility. Relying on support from a human reader or scribe to access education and learning in general is less likely to result in successful learners and effective contributors than enabling young people to access learning independently through assistive technology.

"1:1" Technology and assessment arrangements

In many parts of Scotland learners have been provided with personal digital devices: pupils in in Primary 6 and above in Edinburgh, Falkirk, Glasgow and Scottish Borders have iPads; while learners in Aberdeen, Highland, Stirling and West Dunbartonshire are receiving Chromebooks. The Scottish Government has pledged that "by the end of this parliamentary session, all 700,000 school-aged pupils in Scotland will have access to an appropriate digital device".

Over the past few years we have been investigating the use of iPads and Chromebooks for assessment arrangements [1, 2] and in 2022 we undertook research for SQA into the management of technologies in examinations and the type of devices that teachers expected  learners to use for assessment arrangements. The research involved discussions with colleagues and practitioners; desk research into devices and local authority digital learning policies and strategies; online surveys and webinars. A report was submitted to SQA in August 2022 [3].

We found that the majority of candidates were expected to use Windows OS devices in the 2022 examination diet, even when iPads or Chromebooks were provisioned on a 1:1 basis in the school. We identified several reasons for this: 

Concern was expressed by some teachers that candidates may be disadvantaged by having to use less familiar technology in examinations and that this does not follow the SQA principle that “Assessment arrangements should reflect, as far as possible, the candidate’s normal way of learning and producing work” [4].

The current SQA policy prohibits devices from accessing the internet during an examination, and colleagues reported that this causes difficulties because internet access is usually needed to configure and manage devices, and teachers use cloud storage (e.g. Microsoft OneDrive and Google Workspace for Education) to distribute learning resources and assessments. One teacher said: 

I have been working with a group of S1 pupils, teaching them to use Chromebook text to speech and dictation. Our pupils are capable but struggle to get ideas from their head onto paper. All have dyslexic traits to varying degrees as well as other barriers to learning.  Use of assistive technology on Chromebooks has vastly improved their confidence in, and quality of, writing. Although this has been a very successful exercise, we are now thinking of how they can access such software for formal assessments and exams. Chromebooks are not suitable for this as they cannot function offline. 

A second challenge is that modern accessibility tools such as speech-to-text dictation require internet access to function.

Technology and assessment arrangements working groups

Colleagues in SQA have recognised the challenge and have asked us to set up working groups to research practical solutions to managing the security of ICT devices used in external exams. The aim is to 

find ways for candidates using centre-issued devices to use these, including any accessibility tools, that they use during teaching and learning, in secure assessments, including external exams, without compromising the integrity of the assessment. 

This goal aligns with the policy now in place in the rest of the UK: Nick Lait, Head of Examination Services at the Joint Council for Qualifications is quoted as saying:

If the candidate is using an iPad, a laptop, or a computer provided by the school or college and during an examination the candidate could not access the ‘Internet’, could not access any e-mail system or could not access any files or folders then the integrity and robustness of the examination would be maintained. That is the key principle. If the iPad, the laptop, or the computer services are ‘shut down’ and the candidate is purely using the device for examination purposes and could not access any programs [or] any other software package, online services pertaining to that sole purpose may be used. 

We have established one working group to investigate Chromebooks in SQA Examinations and a second to look at iPads in SQA Examinations. The Chromebook group met on 20 February 2023 and the first meeting of the iPad group is scheduled for April 18th.  

Both working groups benefit from input from colleagues from several local authorities with technical and education expertise and we also have involvement from representatives of Google and Apple. 

There are several assessment systems available that may provide suitable solutions and so part of the work involves research and discussion with the providers of tools such as Read&Write; DocsPlus; Kami; Trelson Assessment; DigiExam and Exam.net.

TextHelp, the creators of Read&Write, have been developing their products for use in examinations, and have just released an update to their OrbitNote product for Chromebooks and Chrome. OrbitNote is a tool for accessing and annotating PDFs, including the SQA Digital Question Papers and Answer Booklets, and the new version has an 'exam mode' that is specifically designed for use in external examinations. Colleagues on the Chromebooks in SQA Examinations working group are currently exploring OrbitNote and we'll report on progress and findings in future blogs.

I'm hoping that these exciting collaborations will result in practical, affordable and accessible solutions so that learners will be able to use familiar technology tools for assessment arrangements in 2024. We will post updates in future blogs.


[1] Nisbet, P., Lawson, S., Mill, C., Stewart, R. (2020) Chromebooks and SQA Assessments.

[2] Nisbet, P. (2021) SQA Assessment Arrangements and Assistive Technology following Covid-19

[3] Nisbet, P. (2023) SQA Assessment Arrangements and Assistive Technologies in 2022. Research commissioned and submitted to Scottish Qualifications Authority, August 2022, revised January 2023.

[4] SQA (2021) Assessment Arrangements Explained: Information for Centres.








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