Marking the markers

I can still remember the August day in 1988 when I opened my ‘A’ level results envelope to see a welcome number of A grades and one C.  For the next few days my world stopped.  An injustice had been committed.  I had never achieved anything less than an A grade for my English Literature essays, and after two years of hard study I was now left with a paltry C grade for my efforts.  I wanted an immediate remark, I was going to write to my MP, if that failed I would go to the press to expose the vagaries of ‘A’ level marking.  In the end the Headmaster persuaded me that with a two E grade offer from Oxford the school had better things to spend its money on than my English Literature appeal and the matter was dropped.

That was wrong.  Students work incredibly hard for exams, and where there is a possibility of examination injustice and erroneous grades appeals should be lodged.  Examining is not error free and this is especially the case in arts subjects where there is an inevitable subjectivity to the assessment process.  English Literature does not lend itself to right or wrong answers in the way that a Maths paper does.

The Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (HMC) has just launched a scathing attack on the exam boards accusing them of ‘systematic’ weaknesses and in particular poor quality marking and inconsistent grading.

I am a Head who also has an unpaid role scrutinising the work of an exam board.  I can see both sides of the argument.  Heads want fair assessment procedures that deliver reliable results.  Unsurprisingly this is what exam boards want too.  It should thus not be too difficult to find practical ways forward to improve the accuracy of the examination system.  I suggest we start with the following:

1. The current exam system is creaking because the volume of exams sat by candidates has increased markedly.   Fewer exams would mean more teaching which benefits schools and pupils, whilst with fewer papers to mark boards can concentrate their best examiners on the remaining scripts.  Removing the January AS and A2 exam season would deliver this objective.

2. Exam boards hold a huge amount of data on candidate performance, number of appeals, marking error rates, and grade adjustments.  This data should be published so that objective discussions can take place about the accuracy or otherwise of the examination process.  It would be interesting to see whether exam board error rates really have increased through time or not.

3. We need to find ways of getting more top quality staff in schools involved in the public exam process either through question setting or assessment.  This could involve higher rates of pay for examiners, and/or reducing the minimum number of scripts to be marked, so that teachers can fit examining around their day jobs.  Heads could incentivise teachers to mark, by recognising public exam assessment for professional development and salary threshold purposes.

4. We are asking more of the public exam system than ever before.  Top universities increasingly want to know candidates’ A and AS level marks as well as their grades.  This requires an increased level of assessment accuracy.  Such an improvement can only be achieved by more investment in the exams process.  Exam entry costs will need to rise, but if this occurs alongside a fall in the number of exams sat then the budgetary impacts on both schools and boards should be neutral.

I hope that the current furore over examination standards can in part be calmed by the common sense measures proposed.  I fear, however, that politicians want to pursue their own examination reform agenda and that it suits their E. Bacc interests to keep fanning the flames of the GCSE and ‘A’ level bonfire.  Schools in turn need to be careful what they wish for.  Pull the current exam system down and it could be replaced with a state controlled entity subject to even more political interference.

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