NZQA is concerned about both sides of the digital divide as it allows more exams to be taken online, reports Sarah Putt. Lower decile schools, whose students have few tech resources, still prefer paper exams, but tech-savvy students find online exams more convenient

If you were to submit a hand-written proposal to your boss, or if I were to scribble this article down in pencil and post it to the editor, it’s unlikely either would accept it. We have become used to neatly typed, spell-checked documents arriving in our inbox. So, why expect today’s teenagers – the most connected generation ever – to sit exams with a pen and paper, rather than using an electronic device?

This is the reasoning behind the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) allowing more critical secondary school exams – NCEA Level 1, 2 and 3 – to be taken online. As NZQA’s deputy-chief executive for digital assessment transformation, Andrea Gray, explains: “The way students sit NCEA exams is changing from hand-written papers to sitting assessments online. This reflects the way students learn and use devices every day, and better equips them for contemporary life and work.”

“Digital exams are being introduced in stages over the next few years,” she says. They will be direct substitutes for the paper versions and will evolve over time in line with classroom teaching and learning, and broader assessment practice.

Since 2016, 22,405 students from 203 schools (about 40 percent of all high schools) have taken part in at least one digital exam trial. This year, NZQA will offer 14 subjects digitally, across NCEA levels 1, 2 and 3, with the range of subjects expanding in coming years. Schools don’t have to take part, and students in participating schools can choose either the digital or paper option.

This year’s online exams will be in various arts, language and vocational subjects where exams are text-based. Last year, NZQA trialled a Level 1 science paper that didn’t count towards the student’s final grade. Results were mixed. “While students preferred typing to writing and liked some of the video and animation features, NZQA recognises there is more work to be done to deliver a good exam experience where graphing, equations and formulae are required,” says Gray.

When sitting paper exams, the most a student has to guard against is a blunt pencil or a pen running dry. So, how does NZQA cater for outages and other technical difficulties that could occur when an exam is sat digitally?

“Technical problems could relate to a power or network outage, or a student’s device failing during an exam. Whatever the reason, students will not be disadvantaged, and schools can apply for a derived or emergency grade,” says Gray.

“Exam-centre managers are experienced in managing issues that may occur during an exam. If an outage is minor, students may get extra time to complete their digital exam. If an outage is major, students may need to continue their exam using paper.

“All the digital exams in 2019 will be electronic copies of the paper ones. The same resources and questions will be presented to students completing either the paper or electronic exams. Students need to demonstrate the same knowledge and skills whether they complete a paper or digital exam.

As in previous years, in 2019, all students entered for a digital exam will have a personalised paper available as a back-up.”

In the trials, about 10 percent of students who started their exam digitally switched to paper during the exam. Gray says many schools separate the digital and paper exam candidates to reduce any disturbance from those taking the exam digitally.

There appears to be little difference in results between those opting for the digital or paper version of an exam. “There is no conclusive evidence of a difference between the two formats of the assessment,” says Gray.

Apparently, having access to digital tools such as spell-checker during an exam doesn’t help. “Students undertaking exams are not assessed for their spelling, whether their answers are written on paper or on a PC. Students still need to determine the correct spelling from options offered by the spell-check function,” she says.

“Spell-check can be helpful for some students with specific learning difficulties who might otherwise need to apply for a special assessment condition.”

As for cheating, the digital exams are set up so students can’t access the internet or other information. “Text can’t be copied from outside the exam browser window. If a student navigates outside their exam window, they, and their supervisor, will receive a warning. They will be locked out of the exam if they continue,” says Gray.

Security has been a key component in designing the system supporting digital exams. Gray says the platform provider has “international experience in delivering highly secure systems.”


The “digital divide” issue, with some students not having access to electronic devices outside of school and so perhaps not being confident undertaking online assessment, is likely to become more pressing as digital exams become more common. A breakdown of the schools that have taken part in the trials since 2016 show the majority of those participating are decile 4-7, with far fewer decile 1-3 schools taking part.

“Access to digital technology does vary across communities in New Zealand. We know that almost all schools have some teaching, learning and internal assessment that is happening online,” says Gray.

“School boards of trustees decide what devices their schools use; when and how they use them, and who owns them. Some schools buy class sets of devices; others run bring-your-own-device programmes, and others work with local trusts to establish affordable lease-to-buy arrangements.

“We recognise some students will be at different stages in their digital learning, so will continue to offer paper-based exams as schools transition to digital education.”

Offering a dual system (paper and digital) costs more, but this will change as digital exams become more common. “While cost-effectiveness is critical, reducing the cost of running the current exam processes is not a driver – assessment needs to reflect the way schools teach and students learn, and this is increasingly digital,” says Gray.

This cautious approach has found favour with the Post Primary Teachers Association, which represents secondary school teachers. President Jack Boyle says it supports NZQA’s digital programme.

“NZQA recognises that where learning is not happening in a digital environment, students would be disadvantaged by digital exams. However, equally, where students are learning in a digital environment then they are likely to be disadvantaged by having to sit a paper-based exam,” he says.

“Many schools have participated in the trials and it has given them a chance to see how the process could work. However, concerns have been raised where a school doesn’t have the infrastructure or technology to support a digital learning environment, particularly when there is the extra pressure of high-stakes assessment.”

New Zealand is not alone in offering digital exams. NZQA says Australia, Israel, Finland, Chile and Sweden are all exploring online exam options. Although, Gray says, each country has a differing approach.

As for the day when all exams are online, and pens, calculators, spare batteries, pencils, erasers and sharpeners are finally banished from the exam room, Gray couldn’t say.

“There is no specific time-frame for removing NCEA paper-based assessment. Schools are at different stages in their approach to digital teaching and learning, and digital assessment needs to be in sync with that.”