Finally, a computer science GCSE that uses computers in assessment

Tim Brady, subject advisor at Pearson, on how the brand-new on-screen assessment prepares students for success in the industry

Enabling computer science students’ skills to be assessed by using a computer may sound obvious, but it actually represents a milestone in school assessment.

Pearson’s new Edexcel computer science GCSE is the first in the UK to assess pupils’ programming skills using a practical onscreen assessment, and it took bravery and radical changes to bring it to fruition.

The goal was to match the assessment with the learning and to make the subject relevant to how the outside world views computer science. But what does this new form of assessment really mean in practice?

There have been a number of questions – from how secure and reliable the exam will be to what infrastructure it needs to run. In this article, I shed light on some common queries:

How secure is the exam?

Firstly, no internet connection is permitted or needed during the onscreen assessment. The centre sets up an exam profile for the student in advance of the examination. The computer is set up to provide the students with the tools required to do their programming. These are the same tools that the students will be taught during their two (or three) year programme of study. No printing is enabled or required, no networking is needed or required, everything is locally installed and is safe and secure.

The centres retain responsibility for the implementation of proper security and invigilation. The data files are released digitally to the centres the morning of the exam and centre staff place them in each student’s user area. There are at least three channels prepped and ready to go to ensure that this works smoothly. These are; secure download from our website, secure download via Edexcel Online and as a final resort the question paper delivery team are ready to secure file transfer on request.

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How reliable and fair is the assessment?

The challenge of setting tasks for assessment that are fair and reliable led us to making the decision to adopt one programming language. This means exam questions can be ramped in demand and can be compared series to series very effectively.

The choice of programming language was not taken lightly, there are pros and cons to every language and every programmer has strong feelings about the language that they prefer. Python was chosen because it is free, widely used, and is easy to start working with. It has plenty of resources and training available due to its adoption into the education community in the last few years and it is used in the wider industry already.

Another advantage of using a single programming language is that we could escape the overbearing reliance on a formalised pseudocode that was being used to facilitate paper-based assessment. Pseudocode is now in the subject content but in a more sensible way and without the need to impose counter intuitive structure to what in its essence should be free form.

Some teachers will not have used Python before, perhaps they are skilled in another language and don’t want to learn a new one. I was exactly this teacher at one time, but in the interests of the students I relented and now enjoy the freedom and flexibility of Python. It took no time at all and it is really beneficial for an experienced programmer to learn a new language in parallel with their students.

What infrastructure will need to be in place?

The JCQ guidelines for computer-based exams recommend large separation between screens. Judicious use of screen shades and desk dividers are an effective way to meet this criteria of assessment. And, we are always on hand to provide support to schools and teachers who feel this may be an issue during their exam period.

As part of Pearson’s new Edexcel Computer Science GCSE, there is plenty of guidance and support available to those schools who are looking to kick start their journey with us.

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