* Appeals against exam results can take more than a year to resolve
* In 2000, Scottish schools appealed against one in seven results
* Some schools spend almost pound;10,000 a year on re-marks and appeals
* One exam board is planning to improve accuracy by introducing online marking, with question-by-question feedback and several examiners able to look easily at one paper
* Twenty-six million exam papers are assessed every year. Only around 0.2 per cent of grades are changed
Exam boards, like the universities from which they originated, were once viewed as ivory towers. How they conducted their business was hardly questioned; how they set papers and awarded marks rarely challenged. In the 1970s less than 15 per cent of 18-year-olds went on to university, and school examination results generated little media interest. All of that has changed. With the publication of league tables, the expansion of higher education and reform of A-levels, achievement in public exams has become a highly politicised, high-stakes business. The way the boards conduct assessment is scrutinised as never before, and the number of appeals against results has risen accordingly. With 50,000 examiners each summer marking 26 million scripts in a six to eight-week period from exam to grade, the opportunity for error and contention is great. Exam boards argue that, given the number of scripts involved, the relatively small number of queries about results is testament to the robustness of their processes.
But schools remain alert to any possibility of inaccurate grading in a system many believe is creaking and desperately short of quality examiners.
Candidates can query results only through the centres (schoolscolleges) where they are registered. Enquiries must be made as soon as possible after results are published, with a deadline of September 20 for August results.
Exam boards offer three post-results services: a clerical check, a re-mark or a re-moderation of coursework with feedback. Most cases are resolved at this point. But if a school is still dissatisfied, it can appeal. There are two stages to the process: a review of the case by a senior member not previously involved, followed by a presentation to an appeals panel, one of whom must be independent. There are fewer than 1,000 formal appeals in an average year.
If a school is still unhappy it can apply for a hearing at the independent Examinations Appeals Board (EAB), set up in 1999 to reassure schools that they could ultimately depend on fair and dispassionate judgment. Only around 10 cases a year get as far as the EAB, few of which result in grade changes.
How long does an appeal take?
Most summer exams are resolved by November. A-level candidates waiting to take up higher education places can request priority, whereby cases must be resolved within 30 days. But if a case is taken to an appeal panel, it may not be resolved until February. If a school goes all the way to the EAB, the process can take more than a year.
A minor issue...
The number of enquiries and appeals has increased year on year, with a sharp rise following the introduction of school league tables in 1992 and a further leap after the introduction of AS in 2000. The figures steadied slightly in 2001, when the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) decided grades could fall as well as rise on appeal. In England and Wales in 2001, the number of enquiries and appeals at GCSE was 45,000, less than 1 per cent of the 5.6 million entries. Of these, 7,600 led to a change of grade. The proportion of enquiries and appeals at A-level was slightly higher, with just over 20,000 cases, or 2.6 per cent of total entries, and around 4,000 changes. Overall, that means less than 0.2 per cent of grades were changed.
... or a growing problem?
The number of appeals rose sharply following the debacle of 2002, when confusion over standards between AS and A2-level led to an 11th-hour adjustment to grade boundaries, and to some history, English literature and psychology A-grade students in the Oxford Cambridge and RSA (OCR) board's exams receiving unclassifieds in their coursework component. More than 2,000 grades were uprated on that issue alone. The resulting lack of confidence in the exam system led more than 95,000 of the following year's GCSE and A-level candidates to challenge their results, bringing 18,000 grade changes. And 1,700 schools queried the coursework marks awarded to groups of pupils.
Even that does not compare to the crisis of confidence in Scotland in 2000, when appeals rose to 13 per cent of total entries after the introduction of the Higher Still reforms led to a breakdown in communication and many lost scripts. Now, any Scottish school that submits appeals for more than 10 per cent of candidates in a single course has to justify the demand for a second look. Figures released last year show that schools have fallen into line behind the Scottish Qualifications Authority and restricted their appeals, which were down a quarter from 29,649 to 22,182 for Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications.
How have the exam boards responded?
The most significant change is that photocopies of marked scripts are now available on request. This means schools can immediately see if marking schemes have been applied fairly and accurately, and where candidates have gone wrong. It has increased transparency and brought a closer working relationship between schools and boards. In response to its problems of 2002, OCR has appointed a director of quality and standards, and has invited schools to comment on aspects of the appeals process with which they are unhappy. The exam board Edexcel, meanwhile, is forging ahead with the pilot of an online exams service. Scripts will be scanned into a computer and marked on screen with question-by-question feedback which schools can see online. Not having to post scripts will save time and money and reduce the risk of papers being lost. Edexcel also believes on-screen marking will make it easier to assess borderline cases, with several examiners able to look easily at one paper.
Stick or twist?
Schools' exam officers say access to marked scripts has allowed them to make a more informed decision on whether to request a re-mark. Whitchurch high school in Cardiff, for example, the largest secondary in Wales with almost 2,500 pupils, had only 16 requests for re-marks this year, mostly at AS and A2 level. With the potential for challenged scripts to be marked down as well as up, schools have become cautious and tend to concentrate their efforts on borderline cases.
Clarissa Williams, head of Tolworth girls' school, Kingston-upon-Thames, and vice-chair of the National Association of Head Teachers' secondary committee, believes a school is much more likely to make a concerted challenge if a child's future is dependent on a higher grade. "We had a case four years ago when a girl's entry to Oxford depended on a higher grade, which we thought she deserved. She was only one mark off. We went to a formal appeal and she got her place. We would usually stop at a re-mark; otherwise it becomes too time-consuming. We have become philosophical."
But not all schools are so sanguine. One large co-educational independent school says it is always prepared to challenge results, especially as it believes the exam boards are recruiting markers who are not subject specialists. It has also had cases of boards losing scripts and practical coursework when results have been challenged. "Boards are getting better," says the school's director of studies, "but in some aspects they remain a law unto themselves." This year the school made 213 requests for units to be re-marked, leading to 88 changes: 69 up, and 19 down. In an OCR maths unit one pupil went from five out of 100 and a grade U to 83 out of 100 and a grade A, moving the A-level grade overall from a C to an A. An Oxford place depended on the top grade.
Footing the bill
Challenging the exam boards costs schools money. Fees vary, but a clerical check costs in the region of pound;10; a priority re-mark costs pound;40; a re-mark pound;35; and an appeal up to pound;150. If a candidate is upgraded, the board carries the costs. But one London secondary head argues that the costs of re-marking and appeal have become prohibitive for state schools. "I put aside pound;1,000 in my budget this year for querying results, but it won't be nearly enough." He explains that one of the school's best ever candidates in art, a flourishing department, received only a B grade. So the school pressed for re-moderation of the cohort. "We are convinced there has been a miscarriage of justice, but in reality there are few grade changes. We pay the exam boards to mark effectively, and there is something strange about the client relationship when we, as clients, have to pay more if we question the efficacy of the system."
The greatest pressure to challenge results often comes from parents. While schools have become better at monitoring student performance, and therefore fewer results seem out of line with predictions, parents are not always so realistic in their expectations. Many schools insist that if parents, rather than the school, challenge a result, they must pay for it themselves.
The appeals road
Clerical checks and re-marks are straightforward. By contrast, the appeals road is long and winding and can be pursued only on procedural grounds, such as whether the mark scheme has been applied correctly. Arguments about the nature of the subject and the way it is interpreted by exam boards are not permitted, although "subjective" areas such as literature, history and religious studies attract most appeals. "You do get people who will pursue their world view of, say, classics, in an obsessive way, going for appeal after appeal," says an OCR spokesman. Of those schools that take cases all the way to the EAB, the majority are independent or grammars.
One head of department who pursued a case as far as the EAB, and lost, said it had been a steep learning curve. The teacher went to appeal over a the marking of an A-level paper which left the student on a much lower grade than expected. The school had argued that the student's script met the criteria for the expected grade and appealed after two re-marks, one by a principal examiner, which pushed the marks up, but not by enough. The school also argued that a re-mark should have been made on a clean script, not on a script with the previous examiner's comments on it. But the board was deemed to have followed procedures and the appeal was rejected. The EAB upheld this judgment, saying that at no point had the school presented evidence that the board had not followed correct procedures. "Ultimately, the view was taken that the principal examiner was the sole arbiter of standards," the teacher explains. Nevertheless, he says he learned much about the appeals process: "It was similar in form and atmosphere to a court of law. I thought I was going in there to defend my student, but in fact, the board not the student, is regarded as the innocent party, so the burden of proof for making the case lies with the school. Although I could make my points, at no time was I allowed to refer to the script to show exactly where the candidate had met the grade criteria."
The best approach, he says, is to make two or three technical points succinctly and emphatically, then consistently defend them. "I think I overloaded them with information, but to say I presented no evidence was unjustifiable." Like other schools that have taken the time and effort to go appeal, he believes taking a case all the way has helped improve relationships with the exam boards, leading to exam grades in line with school expectations.
While the exam boards are confident that online marking will increase transparency, reduce the number of errors and so cut significantly the number of result queries and appeals, there is also concern that a move to a baccalaureate-type qualification, with greater differentiation of A-grades, will lead to more challenges. Andrew Reekes, sub-warden at Radley college, Oxfordshire, says Radley has moved to taking all AS and A2 units together at the end of the second year to reduce requests for resits and re-marking. "If the Tomlinson idea of sub-dividing the As at A-level is taken on board," he argues, "the number of appeals will shoot up."
* AQA (Assessment of Qualifications Alliance): www.aqa.org.ukl
* Edexcel: www.edexcel.org.ukl OCR (Oxford, Cambridge, RSA): www.ocr.org.uk
* Qualifications and Curriculum Authority: www.qca.org.uk. Includes latest statistics regarding enquiries upon results and appeals
* Scottish Qualifications Authority: www.sqa.org.uk
* Joint Council for Qualifications: www.jcq.org.uk. Includes leaflet "Enquiries upon results and appeals".
Main text: Elaine Williams
Illustration: Brett Ryder
Additional research:Sarah Jenkins
Next week: Sure Start