`This is a God-given chance to improve'

14th March 2014 at 00:00
Exam board boss claims greater freedom will end poor grading

Giving examiners more freedom to use their professional judgement is key to improving the accuracy of grading, according to the head of the biggest schools exam board in the UK.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of AQA, said that sweeping reforms to GCSEs and A-levels offered the entire "exams industry" an opportunity to do more to ensure that students received the correct grades.

"This is a God-given chance to really, really make a quantum improvement in this," Mr Hall told TES.

New AQA guidance for examiners would be more precise about the abilities that candidates were expected to show, but would also empower examiners to judge whether or not answers demonstrated those abilities, he said.

England is home to some of the world's most popular and recognised exam brands, such as A-levels and IGCSEs, but the quality of grading in the country has become an increasingly contentious issue.

Last week, it emerged that 721 trainee teachers had incorrectly been awarded passes in numeracy and literacy tests needed to qualify for the profession because of a series of grading errors. And last month, England's exams regulator Ofqual said it expected exam boards to do more to improve grading quality.

The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, a group of elite private schools, published a 92-page dossier in 2012 detailing evidence that "poor marking" was "widespread" in public exams. The body has been campaigning on the issue ever since.

The other two big exam boards in England, Edexcel and OCR, have responded to the concerns by respectively introducing external training for examiners and setting up a scheme that would allow more daytime grading in order to avoid mistakes triggered by tiredness.

But Mr Hall criticised their ideas and said that the root cause of grading problems was the way that new exam papers were designed.

"Our mark schemes will look very different," he said. "They will be based on the best of the research. We will have questions that are designed to be marked, and are engaging and really test the knowledge of students.

"That is a different development approach to what this industry has done before. I think before it would have been very much `How do we make this specification look attractive to teachers?' or `Let's design questions that we think are interesting for the students'."

In the past, exams might have awarded marks for including a specific word or concept, Mr Hall said. Although it was important to be clear about what the paper was trying to assess, mark schemes should not be too detailed, he insisted. The board's computer systems could offer an extra check by allowing constant monitoring of examiners' grading.

AQA has already tested its new approach on an A-level English exam and found that it led to a 75 per cent reduction in the number of times the board had to regrade an entire set of papers from a school.

Pearson, owner of Edexcel, is aiming to improve the quality of its assessment by putting 650 staff at the exam board through a special course run by Durham University and the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA).

Mr Hall said that he had considered using the CIEA training, but added: "I look at the training that we do - we have dedicated researchers whose job it is to do this - and I think it is better."

The OCR exam board is running a pilot scheme that would allow examiners, often serving teachers, to mark exam papers during the day in schools, rather than in the evenings. But Mr Hall said he did not believe that enough schools would be prepared to give teachers the time to allow the scheme to work on any scale.

He added that AQA's systems suggested there were very few teachers grading late at night and also questioned the idea that this was when teachers were most tired.

"I know I am at my [most tired] around about half past five at night, because you've had the working day," he said. "About nine o'clock at night you have had something to eat, you've had a kip. And when I have difficult papers to write, that is my favourite time to do it.I am at my peak."

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