How graded brains may finally be allowed to flower

Ben Taylor

When I got my A-level results, it came as something of a shock only to get Bs in history and English literature. My predicted grades were high, my teachers were encouraging, and my revision and the exams themselves had gone as well as could have been expected. In English literature, particularly, I had gained nearly all of the 50 per cent of marks available from my coursework. And St Anne's College, Oxford thought enough of me and my work to make an offer of AAB.

As it turned out, I got only one A, in French, and although that and another B in pure and applied maths secured my place, the results still bothered me. I decided to get a statement of marks from the exam boards. The statement for history, from the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, showed I'd been awarded only 34 marks for paper I (English history) and 73 for paper II (European).This gave me a total of 107 marks, putting me towards the lower end of the B range (104 to 116). This was not encouraging.

English literature was little better. I had 165 marks for coursework, 33 for paper I (unseen) and 50 for paper II (books). That made 248 out of a possible 360. The Associated Examining Board refused to disclose the grade boundaries. With much persuasion, I managed to discover that I was at least 10 points below the grade A boundary.

I decided to apply for a re-mark and brief report on both exams. I felt that it would be worth the fees of more than Pounds 100 to discover exactly what I had done wrong.

Over two months later, both results were upgraded to As. In history, my first paper mark almost doubled (from 34 to 63) and although my paper II mark had actually gone down by three points to 70, this made my total mark 132, putting me well above the 117 grade A boundary. The letter from NEAB mentioned "an extremely serious undervaluation" of my work in the first paper, and said that I was "clearly of grade A standard". It added: "The fact that an able, if elliptical, candidate was so seriously undervalued is a matter which the chairman of examiners will consider very carefully." What is more, they apologised.

The AEB letter, as I would have expected from their previous unhelpfulness, was much more grudging. They said that I was "close to a grade boundary" and that "on re-marking the work the chief examiner felt that a small number of additional marks could be awarded".

Nevertheless, I gained 18 extra marks (up 5 per cent) from Paper II, another apology and a refund of the fees for both reports. I finally felt vindicated.

What interested me most, however, were the possible consequences. Depending on A-level results, students can suddenly have their plans for the next three years switched from one end of the country to another, or wrecked altogether.

Exams are far more arbitrary and unfair than is often assumed. Students and teachers who expected to get better results should seriously consider an appeal. Because, sadly, universities and employers are unlikely suddenly to learn the other lesson - that exams mean a lot less than they might in terms of reliably evaluating a person's abilities.

Ben Taylor took his A-levels two years ago and is entering his second year at St Anne's College, Oxford

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