Online trial proves wide of the mark

24th August 2007 at 01:00
With some trepidation, I accepted an invitation to try my hand at online marking. The examining board had been taken over by a state-of-the-art publishing firm and the traditional red-ink-to-script method was no longer on offer.

"Can't be that difficult," I thought. "After all, I have the skills." How foolish that seems now. A business firm is clearly most concerned with making a profit and pleasing its shareholders, so its first priority has to be cutting costs. Online marking is cheaper. It was envisaged that the number of examiners could be halved (although this proved to be wide of the mark), administration could be cut to a minimum because handling scripts would no longer be necessary, and expensive standardisation meetings might not be needed because everything could be done online. The quality of the product might not be as good, but it would certainly be more productive.

I'm talking here about the "international O-level", an exam that is much respected abroad. There are (still) three sections to this paper: A: comprehension; B: summary and directed writing; C: essay.

Section A was quickly sorted out. Cheap graduates were recruited to mark this part of the paper, while so-called experts (like me) marked the rest. Section B was more of a problem. There are three strands to marking this section: content, expression and accuracy, and tone. Candidates were given a number of words to adhere to and warned against direct copying from the passage. The counting of words by the examiner remained (because of an alarming tendency in many of the summaries to drift off into anecdotes), as did the crediting of relevant points. But indicating "lifting" and grammatical mistakes proved too time-consuming, so were promptly jettisoned.

In Section C, my inability to control the red online pencil led to a very laborious correction of the essays, and there was no time for the usual detailed comments at the end of each.

Under the circumstances, it proved impossible to deliver our customary high quality service, particularly as the timescale was so truncated. My worry is that a business firm may be more concerned with obtaining a mark rather than the right mark. All things considered, I decided not to renew my contract, in common with most of my fellow sufferers. These included the team leaders and the principal examiner, who had been involved in this prestigious exam for many years.

Online marking seems to be a mistake. But is anyone listening?

Margaret Tomkins is a retired teacher and has been an examiner for 13 years

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