Change prompted by pupil and parent complaints that grades improved on appeal arrive too late to secure university place
Exam boards will be required to respond faster when their marking is challenged, making it easier for pupils to inform universities of any grade changes.
More than 1,000 A-level grades were altered on urgent appeal to exam boards last year, about the same as 2006. New figures show that 11 per cent of the 9,610 priority appeals resulted in a grade change, with almost all resulting in an improved grade.
Pupils and parents said that grades that were improved arrived too late from boards to secure university places, according to a report to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).
Exam boards have been advised to accept urgent appeals by email or fax only to speed up the process.
"There is a risk that the religious beliefs of some centres or candidates would prevent their using computer resources," said the report by Gerry Kelly, a consultant. "But it is understood that the same difficulties would not attach to the use of fax."
The QCA, which commissioned the report, has agreed to tighten the response time for exam boards from 20 to 18 days, for urgent A-level appeals. But for non-urgent appeals for A-level and GCSE, the response time will be reduced from 35 days to 30 days.
More than 15,500 GCSE appeals (22 per cent) resulted in a grade change last year, an increase from 14,200 in 2006, the new figures from the QCA show.
For A-level appeals that were not urgent, there were more than 5,100 grade changes (11 per cent), up from 4,700 in 2006.
The Examinations Appeals Board (EAB), the final appeal body if exam boards reject students' pleas, is to decide in May how it will speed up its processes.
Mr Kelly's report recommends that schools and colleges have only two weeks, rather than three, to lodge their appeals to the EAB.
The board chairman would have one week to decide whether to accept the appeal.
Linda Field is examinations officer for William Morris Sixth Form at Hammersmith in west London. "We've had students waiting for a re-mark for their university places," she said. "Occasionally the re-marks have come back so late that the places they wanted have gone. Generally, though, the exam boards are pretty quick."
More than half of all teachers think that exam papers in their subjects are harder than in others. A similar number believe exam papers cater for higher-ability pupils, but are not accessible to those with lower ability.
And one in eight teachers claims that exams are not getting easier over time. They say that the 2007 papers were more demanding than those set in 2006.
The Ipsos Mori survey of 401 teachers, commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), found that the majority felt that exam papers were appropriate for their qualification and level. Most were similarly confident in the validity of the qualification that pupils would gain in their subject. But some were less confident in the system itself. Almost a third expressed doubt in the A-level system, and more than a third said that they were uncertain about the validity of GCSEs.
The QCA report said: "It is not known whether these findings simply reflect that teachers are more familiar with their selected qualification and subject than with wider systems, or whether there is in fact a deeper dissatisfaction with the wider systems."