Saudi Arabia’s University Entrance Exams Move Online in Wake of COVID

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A report has been released detailing Saudi Arabia’s rapid move to online testing, precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Saudi Arabia: Moving high stakes examinations online with AI technology is a joint initiative of Saudi Arabia’s Education and Training Evaluation Commission (ETEC), World Bank, Global Education Innovation Initiative, OECD and HundrED.

The report analyzes Saudi Arabia’s plans to move high-stakes examinations from pen-and-paper format to an online format following the closure of schools in March 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Detailing the change in the delivery of the Standardized Achievement Admission Test (SAAT), the report is one example of how the challenges of the pandemic have been met with success.

The SAAT, otherwise known as the Attehseeli is one of three requirements for university entrance in Saudi Arabia and is largely considered the most important. Using some of the latest artificial intelligence (AI) to guard against cheating, more than 300 000 students were still able to complete the SAAT, despite the impact of COVID-19, with minimal disruption to the resulting university admissions process. Students remained able to graduate on time, and fair and comparable information about students’ academic achievement for the university entrance and selection process was able to be generated.

With school closures brought about by the pandemic in early 2020, students, teachers, and parents in Saudi Arabia were concerned about how students in their final year of high school would be able to sit this crucial test, necessary for university and college entrance. Given that ETEC had already begun investigating a move from paper-and-pencil to online testing, a decision was made to seize this opportunity and accelerate the move online for the SAAT.

Saudi Arabia was able to make this rapid change from paper-and-pencil high-stakes examinations for university entrance due, in part, to investments made in previous years. In particular, the infrastructure was available in terms of widespread connectivity and high levels of ownership of digital devices and familiarity with using the Internet among young people. Having computerized testing centers with trained proctors across the country and mobile units for very remote locations for equitable access also enabled Saudi Arabia to have a successful experience with the online SAAT.

ETEC also took pre-emptive measures to minimize potential challenges arising out of the online delivery of the SAAT. Students were able to sit a mock SAAT one week prior to the actual exam, allowing them to become familiar with the technology and counter possible technical problems. All students were given the option of sitting the exam in their own space or at a QIYAS computerized testing center. Abuses of the system were largely overcome through the use of automated proctoring employing artificial intelligence. In total, 218 000 students completed the exam via their own computer, while a further 117 000 students sat the test at a computerized testing center or mobile testing unit.

His Excellency Dr. Husam Zaman, ETEC President, said of SAAT’s digital transformation, “The processes put in place by ETEC meant that both students and universities could feel more assured of the new process and that the test could be delivered just four weeks behind the usual schedule. This is a great achievement for Saudi Arabia and gives us the confidence to further the digitalization of testing in the country”.

The success of the SAAT’s new online delivery has seen ETEC accelerate previous timelines set for moving other tests and assessments online. H.E. Dr Zaman says, “There are many benefits from using new technologies to deliver exams online. There are time and cost savings, and the outcomes of the tests can be better assured thanks to the cutting-edge technology used to proctor the exams”.

The authors of the report include Abdullah Al-Qataee, CEO, National Center for Assessment, Education and Training Evaluation Commission (ETEC); Nayyaf Aljabri, Director General, Research and Innovation, ETEC; Laura Gregory, Senior Education Specialist, World Bank; and Amira Kazem, Senior Operations Officer, World Bank. The report can be downloaded at https://oecdedutoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Saudi-Arabia-High-stakes-examinations-and-AI.pdf.