English grade furore flares up again over 'harsh' marks

29th March 2013 at 00:00
Teachers complain about poor results in January GCSE exams

Teachers claim their students are being unfairly penalised in GCSE English for a second year running after unexpectedly low marks were awarded in this January's exams, TES has learned.

They have accused exam boards of inaccurate and overly harsh marking in the controversial qualification, which was the subject of legal action last year amid claims that around 30,000 students had been deprived of crucial C grades in June. Some teachers suspect that exam boards have now deliberately marked students down to try and avoid a repeat of 2012, when January's grades were eventually deemed too generous.

Kieron Bailey, an English teacher at a Northamptonshire secondary, said that nine out of 10 students at the school who took exams this January have received marks that are "substantially" lower than they deserved on Edexcel's higher tier English exam. One girl received 13 marks out of 96 when Mr Bailey expected her to achieve more than 70.

"I can't help feeling that because of the January results last year that caused the problems in June they have been extra harsh this year," Mr Bailey said.

More than 20 schools have reported problems with marking in the qualification on the TES online forum. And the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said it has received a steady flow of calls from members concerned that marking has been too severe.

Giles Academy in Boston, Lincolnshire, has already sent back a sample of papers from 10 of around 90 students who took Edexcel's higher tier paper. After re-marking, nine have come back with changes - one student moved from 13 to 30 out of 96 marks and another from zero to 11.

Deputy head Ian Widdows is now pressing for the exam board to re-mark all the students' papers. "Is this just poor marking, in which case the exam board needs to put it right," he said. "Or is this a deliberate shift in standards and expectations?"

Teachers are complaining about marking in English and English language GCSEs offered by all four of the big exam boards in England and Wales. But Edexcel, and to a lesser extent AQA - the boards involved in last year's court case - have come in for the most criticism.

One teacher on the TES website describes their GCSE English marks as "terrible". "They are so bad I am hoping that only half the paper was marked and it is an admin error," they write. "If the boundaries from this summer are any indication we are looking at very poor results."

But exam boards and the regulator Ofqual, which together successfully defended the 2012 grades in the High Court, said that teachers have jumped to the wrong conclusions. Only the raw marks have been released and schools cannot know how well students have done until actual grades are awarded, they said. This process has been delayed until summer to avoid a repeat of last year's crisis.

Boards said previous grade boundaries cannot be used as a guide and that it was this misapprehension that led to so many schools being disappointed when the boundaries in English GCSEs were increased between January and June last year.

Despite this, teachers are continuing to assume that certain marks mean certain grades, based on previous years' boundaries.

"Teachers don't know where they are any more," Brian Lightman, ASCL general secretary, said. "They could reasonably be expected to say 'this piece of work is a C or a D' but they can't do that now because the goalposts have been moved. I don't think (last year's) problems have been solved."

Glenys Stacey, Ofqual chief regulator, told MPs this week that precautions had been taken to avoid a repeat of last year's controversy, but warned that it takes more than a year for a new qualification like GCSE English to "bed in".

An Ofqual spokesperson said the regulator would talk to exam boards to see what lay behind teachers' marking concerns.

AQA said: "We haven't changed the way we apply mark schemes but, as always, we would encourage schools to get in touch if they have concerns."

A spokesperson for Edexcel said: "It is not possible to draw accurate conclusions about students' grades at this point. We continuously monitor the quality of marking."

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