On a sticky wicket

A growing cult of exam appeals reflects marking knocked for six, argues Peter King

I suppose it is almost inevitable that the constant emphasis on test and examination results, emphasised by the regular publication of league tables, has produced what I call an appeals cult.

I meet many teachers, as I'm an examiner and invigilator, and can fully understand their anxieties - and the pressures on them. I'm sure one head of department speaks for all when she says she has to justify the performance of her department to her senior management and the governors. Who wouldn't be nervous in these circumstances and feel compelled to appeal when expectations are not met? But as with test cricketers, it can sometimes lead to strident and probably unjustifiable appeals.

Many years of public examination work have taught me the dangers of a parochial approach and the need for a national perspective on standards.

Despite national criteria and increasing standardised assessment practices - based on far more detailed exam specifications than I was ever accustomed to - it is still possible to see little wrong with the standards in your own school. External moderation of coursework shows that this can happen all too often, with the need to bring particular centres into line with agreed national standards.

But I am also increasingly convinced that many appeals are justified because we are recruiting and retaining too few competent markers. This inevitably leads to a loss of faith in the system.

I've learned a lot about test papers as an invigilator, but I've also been involved for many years in the devising of tasks and mark schemes. Few teachers criticise the test papers or the mark schemes, but many complain about the marking. We need to ensure that the substantial sums of money we spend on assessment maintain quality throughout the whole process, from the devising and testing of papers to the final marking.

We need to face up to some searching questions. Are we doing too much testing for which we cannot recruit enough quality markers? Do we therefore need to cut back? Should we pay more and allow more time for the marking to be done effectively? Since we already ask for teacher assessment alongside SATs, would it be better to have a system of external moderation of teacher assessment, with limited sampling of a range of testscontrolled work, as with coursework schemes in the past? Why not have visiting moderators, as with some aspects of GCSE, especially where the pattern of teacher assessment seems odd or unbalanced? Has the time come to look at designated paid marking periods, based in schools?

In the "bad old CSE days", we cross-moderated each other's folders of coursework or oral exams with no outcry about falling standards or dissatisfaction among the teachers, or public disquiet at teacher involvement.

Maybe there would be no appeals cult if teachers were actively involved in the whole assessment process and thus genuinely trusted to maintain standards. At least it might restore their faith in the system.

Peter King is a retired English teacher who lives in Wiltshire

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