Most students don’t love tests, viewing them at best as a necessary evil. But when the global pandemic shut down assessment centers all over the world, secondary-school students lost the ability to take qualifying tests that would enable them to attain credentials necessary to move to university and other programs. The prospect of major disruption for countless students was all too real. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 1.38 billion students worldwide were affected.

At that historic moment, we were already in the process of helping a large education board that provides secondary- and primary-school assessments for students aged 10, 15 and 17 to implement an assessment management solution. It became clear we needed to build in enough flexibility, scalability and reliability to make the system able to withstand not only this crisis but future ones, as well.

But in the days immediately following global stay-at-home orders, the priority shifted to creating a hybrid credential that combined internal, grade-level evaluations done by the school with an assessment of personal development and critical thinking. Under the exigent circumstances, the education board changed its approach for awarding qualifications to students from exam-based to internal marks-based. This interim credential enabled students to continue their plans, whether that meant applying to university or continuing to the next level at their schools.

Scrambling to find alternative assessment models

With its own revenues at stake, the education board focused on helping students and educators through the prolonged uncertainty that gripped the world of primary and secondary education. Facing widespread examination cancellations, the provider worked quickly, drawing up a series of short-term measures including validation of schools’ internal assessments and final grades to address the concerns of both students and institutions, addressing how final results would be calculated and issued in a year of unprecedented turmoil. Global lockdown orders prevented in-person delivery of exams, raising the question of how schools would examine students.

With operations in more than 150 countries and multiple languages, there was a great deal of complexity, including development in multiple time zones and across cultures. The provider handles more than 1 million subject-test results every year, with thousands of transcripts sent to roughly 800 universities globally.

The assessment management solution had to be scalable to handle the provider’s projected growth rate of 10% year on year. The solution needed to cover end-to-end assessment, including product definition, product delivery, tabulation of results and communication to students and institutions. The provider wanted as much process automation as possible to increase efficiency.

In one sense, COVID-related shutdowns could be said to have caused the biggest exception ever in the assessment processes. Given this, as the project team looked to develop a platform, it placed exception management at the core in order to increase resilience in the case of future emergencies. Rather than having to communicate offline or via endless email strings, the team wanted an issue tracking system so this issue would be called out automatically. This would offer built-in adaptability to handle unforeseen or exceptional scenarios, including examination cancelations and reschedules, manual results management, simulation-based moderation and transition from paper modes to alternate modes of assessment.

For example, if a student is not able to attend exam on a particular date, rather than manage that exception offline, a case could be opened on the platform with automatic workflows to kick off all necessary processes and inform all interested parties. Another example: If a student required an exam in Braille, the system would raise a ticket and launch all necessary processes without the need for human intervention. The need for flexibility and automation became ever clearer during the shutdown.

The project team had a number of other goals for the platform:

  • Usability (presenting an efficient and user-friendly interface).
  • Flexibility (the system can be configured according to changing business rules and requirements).
  • Reliability (the system does what a user needs it to do when he/she needs it done).
  • Data integrity (encompassing data accuracy, integrity and consistency).
  • Data governance (covering compliance with applicable regulations such as GDPR, security, including encryption, and archiving of data).
  • Availability (the system is available for use when required, including possible 24 x 7 uptime at certain times of the year).
  • Configurability (the system can be configured to meet requirements rather than requiring coding changes).
  • Performance (the system processes requests in an acceptable timeframe, fast enough to allow unhindered business processes).
  • Scalability (the system can cope with increasing processing demands and data sizes).

The project encompassed writing and producing over 1,000 assessments in three core languages (used by the administrators, examiners and teachers), managing more than 15,000 examiners globally, and sending results to over 200,000 candidates per year. The provider also needed to manage more than 5,000 schools during the assessment and post-results periods, with everything done in compliance with regulatory requirements including GDPR. The education board also wanted to include alumni support for millions of learners across the globe.

A solution ready to take on future challenges

The solution is cloud native, built on Microsoft Azure, .Net and SQL Server with Angular as its JavaScript framework and a case/workflow management suite. It has built-in flexibility to scale for future needs and business changes, providing agility through configurable rules and entities. With a growing focus on “embedded learning” (which tests for a specific set of skills needed in the moment), the solution provides flexibility to manage scenarios like the issuing of results based on internal coursework instead of marked papers.

The system has the ability to switch from paper-based examination to an alternate mode such as online assessment as needs arise. It has multilingual communication capabilities, configurable enough to ensure connectivity with all key stakeholders. It can support rapid registration and onboarding, as well as cancelations and fall-back processing for unforeseen events such as COVID-19.

The platform also includes the ability to assess and train teachers, which had been absent. The provider believes this will be an important capability in retraining and upskilling the teacher workforce. Professional development is an important qualification the education board can use to differentiate itself in the market.

The system is designed for maximum extensibility to new technologies and use cases, as well, including everything from proctoring to blockchain to immersive assessment (which focuses on demonstrating hands-on skills) to video-based testing. The provider will continue to develop its digital strategy and offerings with the comfort of knowing that the system will accommodate its future needs.

Part one of this series covers Europe’s post-COVID overarching learning and assessment challenges; parts two and three detail our work with different assessment boards. This is our final instalment.

This article was written by Marcin Remarczyk, Manoj Chawla, Daniel Liddy and Nitin Kumar of Cognizant Consulting Europe.

Our domain-driven digital engineering approach combines subject matter expertise with digital engineering skillsets (such as cloud and data) to partner with clients in higher education to achieve digital transformation. To learn more, visit the Education section of our website or contact us.