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Reading School release entrance test results faster by outsourcing OMR scanning to ePC's document scanning bureau

Listed in the Top 10 State Secondary Schools by the Sunday Times, Reading School is a selective state day and boarding academy for boys aged 11-18 based in Reading, Berkshire.

Background

As the only boys’ grammar school in the local area, there is a high demand for places with around 1,000 students competing for 150 places each year.

Pupil performance in an entrance exam decides admission to year 7. The entrance exam – consisting of a Maths test, an English test, and a Creative Writing paper - is administered by Future Stories Community Enterprise (FSCE) Entrance Test for Schools.

Providing opportunities for disadvantaged local children

Future Stories is a social mobility project working in partnership with local primary schools. The Future Stories project aims to ensure that Reading School is full of high ability students from a range of social and economic backgrounds.

Featured on the UK Social Mobility Awards Roll of Honour and finalists for two years running, the school seeks to raise aspirations and narrow both the attainment and opportunity gap for local children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Since the Future Stories programme began, we've successfully increased the number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the school. However, we were concerned the entrance test was not as accessible as we would have liked for disadvantaged and children with certain disabilities. We wanted to be certain that if the children got the answers incorrect, it was because they could not solve the question and did not know the answer, rather than them having problems with the format

Caroline Mole, Executive Assistant, Reading School

Consequently, Reading School approached an education consultant to review their exam papers and recommend formats and assessments that are most suitable for children.

Challenge

Part of the work involved sourcing a new company to mark the English and Maths exams.

Previously, the supplier provided Reading School with overprinted OMRs for the English and Maths exams, scanned returned OMR sheets, and supplied an Excel spreadsheet containing candidate results.

With the contract expiring, FSCE had decided to seek a new approach to processing the entrance test due to several ongoing challenges.

Inflexible form design

The OMR sheet was quite formulaic with Reading School being asked to fit their questions into a grid-style layout and pre-defined data capture fields.

It was quite a rigid system, recalls Caroline. We always felt we were squeezing the questions into the exam sheet and being told we must fit into this template.

Fixed data output

The uniform approach continued with the output of candidate results.

The supplier provided Reading School with data in a standard Excel spreadsheet. As a result, the school had to manipulate thousands of records to meet their requirements which carried a significant risk of human error.

Limited visibility

Operationally, Reading School had no control over what information they could access and no visibility of the marked exam scripts.

The school received a report from the supplier stating simply how many questions the candidate answered, but this left them unprepared to respond to parents questioning or appealing the results.

In the past, we did not get access to a records management system at the same time as we got access to the data files. The only thing supplied was the final standardised score, so we never saw the scanned OMR exam sheets, says Caroline.

Looking to the future

Future Stories' vision is to market the entrance test to other grammar schools across the UK. As a result, they wanted to work with a supplier willing to collaborate with them in the future.

I think we wanted to work with a company who understood that FSCE may expand and would be prepared to grow with us in the next few years. We needed a committed partner willing to explore options and provide flexible solutions, not fixed systems, says Caroline.

Solution

Commencing the search for a document scanning bureau

Caroline and the education consultant commenced their search for a scanning bureau to provide document scanning services and work with them to design OMR exam sheets.

When we started to look for potential suppliers, we needed to quickly establish if the project was going to be economically feasible, says Caroline.

Crucially, I think we wanted a better relationship with the new supplier. We took the time to scrutinise ePC’s scanning set-up and see how flexible they could be when creating OMR answer sheets, which was so much better than the other companies we spoke to

Caroline Mole, Executive Assistant, Reading School

Subsequently, FSCE asked ePC to provide OMR exam sheet design, print, scanning and indexing services for the entrance exam at Reading School.

Flexible OMR form design

The first stage involved redesigning the OMR sheet to make it more accessible to disadvantaged pupils. The new sheet is flexible enough to offer multiple layout possibilities and is optimised for higher capture rates with intelligent character recognition (ICR) reading short written responses and optical mark recognition scoring answers to multiple-choice questions (MCQ).

Additionally, the OMR sheet incorporated cornerstones and ID blocks to reduce manual intervention and barcodes to identify candidates.

We weren't directly involved before, so it’s been a real eye-opener for me seeing how much work goes into the set-up of a test, recalls Caroline.

We sent the example test booklet to ePC who had the draft answer sheets back really quickly. I think we bounced ideas back and forth a few times and considered if the layout was intuitive for year 6 pupils to complete, but new versions were available quickly

Caroline Mole, Executive Assistant, Reading School

Delivering peace of mind with a pilot scheme

Next, ePC delivered a pilot with the redesigned answers sheets filled in with dummy candidate data, scanned and the results provided in an Excel template.

The pilot was so beneficial. It gave us confidence that the new sheet was more accessible, the OMR scanners would read the mark scheme, and candidate results would be available in a more user-friendly format

Caroline Mole, Executive Assistant, Reading School

The pilot helped the school consider where issues might occur, particularly in terms of character recognition.

ePC recommended ovals to capture MCQs as pupils could shade in the area. Bespoke rules on the sheet mean that if a child changes their mind and crosses out an A and correctly shades in D, the OMR scanners will mark the question accurately per the mark scheme.

Updated instructions to candidates and advice to invigilators were provided based on feedback from the pilot.

Upon completion of the pilot, the OMR sheet was rolled out for the entrance test and included pre-printed variable data – candidate name, primary school, date of birth, test date, and location – to improve the candidate experience and increase scanning efficiency.

OMR form printing

ePC provided professionally printed OMR sheets and supplied blank sheets for late entries on the day.

OMR scanning

At the end of the examination, invigilators collected the completed scripts and arranged for despatch to ePC’s document scanning bureau.

Reading School had a number of employees absent with COVID-19 when the tests were held, resulting in delayed or mishandled answer sheets. Crucially, each sheet includes a barcode to identify the candidate and reconcile answer sheets to enrolments, so ePC was able to notify the school of missing papers that the school had kept secure in a locked cupboard.

ePC arranged an additional collection for the extra sheets. It did blow me away a little because I was happy to arrange transportation because it was our error. Previously, we would have all been on tenterhooks wondering how the other supplier would react but ePC was very accommodating throughout

Caroline Mole, Executive Assistant, Reading School

Document digitisation

At the document scanning bureau, the sheets were converted to an electronic image. This was achieved by scanning exam sheets into the intelligent data capture software through a high-speed document scanner.

As each sheet was scanned, the data was automatically captured with the document scanning and indexing software performing optical mark and character recognition, validating extracted data, and exporting raw data to Excel.

Working with ePC gave Reading School the autonomy to review verified OMR sheets, something that is proving to be beneficial.

We had the option to review the scanned sheets and picked up on a few answers where we felt ePC’s verification team might have been too kind. We never saw this data before and ePC were so receptive to making changes at the eleventh hour

Caroline Mole, Executive Assistant, Reading School

User-friendly data export

Once each exam sheet has been processed, candidate results are exported to a pre-defined Excel template.

Results

I would highly recommend ePC to other schools seeking a scanning bureau to provide document scanning services. Our school has saved a significant amount of time during this year’s admissions process by outsourcing both the design of the OMR sheet and exam paper scanning with results issued to pupils in record time. We have greatly appreciated the personal contact and professional service provided; it has exceeded our expectations and my colleagues speak highly of it

A.M. Robson, Headmaster

Quicker results to pupils

ePC was able to turn around the 1,200 entrance tests in a few days with Reading School experiencing its best results turnaround as a result. Without the speedy turnaround, Reading School would not have been able to meet its deadlines with other suppliers such as creative writing assessors and statisticians.

We analysed data about a week ahead of previous years and that took the pressure off. It enabled us to release the results promptly and answer any questions from parents before they had to fill in their common application form

Caroline Mole, Executive Assistant, Reading School

Building strong working relationships

Reading School has placed great importance on building a collaborative relationship with ePC based on trust, communication, and personal contact.

We certainly value the relationship with the team at ePC and I think it will become solidified as time goes on. The knowledge that we can eMail or pick up the phone and get an answer or not put someone's nose out of joint if we ask to change things is really important. Honestly, I think talking to a person who knows us and the project rather than being in a faceless system is invaluable

Caroline Mole, Executive Assistant, Reading School

Increased visibility with secure document storage

With around five applicants per place, entrance to the school is very competitive with parent appeals commonplace. Without any visibility of scanned images, the school had to approach the previous provider for information which was limited.

In addition to greater involvement and visibility over the process, the school now has secure access to electronic records, searchable by candidate name/number. This helps in the appeals process as the school can quickly refer to an archived sheet and confirm whether the evidence supports - or dispels - the appeal.

Moreover, it has saved time as retrieving archived OMR sheets could take hours or even days previously.

If you’re looking for a document scanning company who provides excellent customer service with a personal touch, I would wholeheartedly recommend approaching ePC to see what they’ve got to offer

Caroline Mole, Executive Assistant, Reading School

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