The Issue: Marking errors

18th March 2011 at 00:00
Marking errors can cost students their place at university. Damage limitation by schools must be speedy

When your students fall short of the grades they need for university, it is hard to take. But it is doubly galling to discover that they didn't flunk - it was the exam board.

Problems with exam board AQA's online marking system last summer meant that 3,000 papers were only part-marked, and 600 students were given the wrong overall grade. But it was the revelation that 13 students had lost out on their first-choice university that hit hardest - this kind of exam board error affects people's futures.

What is more, those unlucky 13 were almost certainly not the only ones to suffer. This mistake caused by the new marking system made the headlines, but across the exam boards more than 9,000 A-level students had their grades changed as a result of inaccurate marking or clerical errors. For example, Thomas Kwei, a student at St Francis of Assisi Technology College in Walsall, initially failed to gain a place at Liverpool University because his English literature marks were added incorrectly. It was well into September before he received his correct grade. Thankfully, the university deemed his circumstances exceptional and found a place for him.

So what can schools do to ensure that pupils do not miss out? The answer is simple - act fast. If you feel a paper has been wrongly graded, request a re-mark immediately. Exam boards offer a "priority review" for students whose university place is in the balance, and a spokesperson for AQA says they "super-prioritise" inquiries received on results day or the day after. Getting to the front of the queue can make all the difference.

"The earlier a new grade is known the greater chance a place will be available," says a spokesperson for university admissions body Ucas. "If a student receives their amended results before 31 August, universities will do their best to accommodate them."

If students lose their university place because of a marking error, legal action is a possibility. "If a student's career prospects are damaged they have a case for compensation from the exam board," says law consultant John Mackenzie.

In theory, if marking errors affected a large number of students and led to bad publicity in the local press, the school could also sue the board. "The school pays the exam fees, so it has a contract with the board," says Mr Mackenzie. "If the board fails to act as you would reasonably expect, then it is in breach of contract."

A more realistic course of action is for schools to take their business elsewhere and change boards. Statistics for 2010 reveal that of the three main exam boards, OCR had to make the lowest proportion of grade corrections at both GCSE and A-level. But the figures vary from year to year and the differences are probably not large enough to justify a switch.

Instead, it is better to focus on helping students who miss out, and to accept that mistakes can cut both ways. "If a student does worse than expected you ask for a review," says Bob Salisbury, a retired examinations officer in Lancashire. "But if they do better than expected, you just keep quiet."

Taking action

Request a priority review as soon as possible - preferably within 24 hours of results day. This can be done online.

Notify the relevant university admission officer that a review has been requested.

Exam boards should carry out all priority reviews within 18 days of receipt.

Universities should try to accommodate students who receive new grades before 31 August. After that, it is at their discretion.

For statistics on grade changes, see www.ofqual.gov.ukfiles2010-12-08- ear.pdf.

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