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Stand by your ticks

When test papers are returned, marker's comments should be included says Peter King. Bold gestures demand bold implementation. The decision by SCAA to return key stage 3 scripts to schools this summer (following the New Zealand pattern) required courage, so why stop short, especially in English, and limit examiners to ticks and a final level or mark?

Why shouldn't the examiners be allowed to record their comments in the margins of pupils' papers just as the classroom teacher might? Of course there is always the risk of the injudicious comment, however experienced the examiner, but if schools wish to be involved in a genuine dialogue, where test papers become a part of the whole learning process, it would be worth it.

As a former English teacher it is second nature to me to "think with my pen" when marking, especially when the subject is literature and extended writing in English. I suspect the majority of English teachers do the same.

So, I would find it extremely inhibiting to be confined to ticks, forced to put comments on a separate piece of paper as these are vital to my final, overall assessment instead of in the body of the work. My sustained response is reflected in the brief comments that pepper the margin, with a final, more extensive one that draws the strands together, indicates my "holistic" conclusions and, vitally, justifies the level and the mark.

Assessment is a dialogue rather than a solitary activity. These days we are all accountable: to the Government via SCAA, to the examinations boards which employs us as markers, to the schools, with their governors and teachers, the parents and, above all, the pupils. All expect and are entitled to a professional service but those who provide it should not be inhibited.

All sorts of factors contribute to successful examining. One of these, in relation to Key Stage 3, may well be the freedom to work in a familiar way and where one feels most confident. I certainly have always believed that the quality of an examiner is immediately signalled by the quality of his or her comments on the scripts.

But how is such a dialogue sustained? Examiners work in teams under the guidance of a team leader. There are performance criteria, exemplar scripts and so on that provide guidance for each marker, but the important process of standardising is likely to be far more effective if each has the freedom to comment on the scripts. Ticks, a level and a mark certainly convey a response but they can also force one to become a mind reader.

The dialogue continues after the papers pass from the marker back to the school, with teachers and pupils now given far more insight into how the conclusions were reached. No system will be perfect, especially with the subjective element that is inevitable in the assessment of English studies; there are always likely to be appeals from dissatisfied customers. We could, however, go a great deal further in forestalling them.

If key stage 3 testing is to survive it needs to enjoy the confidence of its customers. I believe that one way in which it can positively do this is to extend the dialogue with them.

Peter King is a former English teacher currently working as a key stage 3 trialler GCSE examiner

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