Leaders warn of a ‘crisis’ over poor exam marking

4th December 2015 at 00:00
Principals losing faith in examiners as record number of grades are corrected

A RECORD 77,000 GCSE and A-level grades were corrected after challenges were submitted by schools and colleges in 2014. A survey conducted by the exam watchdog Ofqual in the same year revealed that 80 per cent of headteachers did not believe all GCSE students were given the right grade. But the concerns around marking are by no means restricted to schools – and, if anything, they appear to be increasing.

A session at the Association of Colleges’ (AoC) annual conference last month was titled “Right and wrong: The growing crisis around exam marking”, reflecting the anxieties of many providers about the reliability of the grades that their students are awarded.

One FE leader with concerns about exam marking is Dan Dean, principal of Esher College in Surrey and chair of the S7 consortium of sixth-form colleges. “We had quite a few subject areas mismatch between students’ performance in one year and in another,” he told the conference. “People who were [usually] getting As were getting Ds, Es and Us. This was not just students having an off-day.”

Such concerns have spread far beyond the walls of one sixth-form college, according to Dean, who believes that the current marking system isn’t working, and that examiners need to find a solution.


Watchdog ‘greatly concerned’

Earlier this year, Ofqual published a report into the marking process of examining board OCR last summer, which had caused “the greatest concern” to the examination watchdog (bit.ly/OCRInvestigation).

At the end of a five-week investigation, Ofqual’s chief regulator Glenys Stacey wrote to Mark Dawe, OCR’s chief executive at the time, revealing that she had been close to pursuing legal action after OCR almost failed to deliver GCSE and A-level results on time.

OCR’s near-miss was, in part, attributed to January resit opportunities for GCSE and A-level being removed by the government. The report said that this new approach of “linearisation” meant that OCR had been left with 900,000 more scripts to mark than it had had the previous year.

At the time, OCR said that it had launched a “warts and all” internal investigation and appointed a new senior team “to ensure we learnt the lessons of the summer”, although they added that they were doing this despite the fact that the scripts had been delivered on time.

In Ofqual’s annual perception survey, 60 per cent of principals and 30 per cent of teachers said that they did not believe the marking of GCSEs was accurate. At A-level, there was a slightly lower proportion: 44 per cent of principals said that they didn’t have confidence in the accuracy of A-level marking.

Alex Scharaschkin, director of research and compliance at the AQA exam board, told the AoC conference, held at the ICC in Birmingham, that exam boards making marking errors was unacceptable.

“[Mistakes] might range from missing a page off the script or adding up the marks wrongly,” he said. “These sorts of things do happen, and stopping it is clearly a no-brainer.

“When you look at statistics in this area, it’s kind of like when you go to the doctor and the doctor says ‘it’s really rare to have this condition, hardly anyone gets it’ – but that doesn’t help if you’re the one who has the problem.”

According to Ofqual, though, there is no crisis. “I don’t believe there’s a crisis in terms of the quality of marking,” said Ian Stockford, the organisation’s executive director for general qualifications, “but I absolutely recognise that the current system isn’t perfect.”


‘Speculative’ challenges

Clearly, issues remain. This year saw another increase in the number of enquiries from providers that were concerned about the grades given to their students.

But often, according to Dean, the “enquiry about results” process is used speculatively or as a mechanism for keeping examiners in check. He compared it to the Umpire Decision Review System, used in cricket to review any controversial decisions. Each team is given two chances to review per innings, and the challenges are made more commonly in hope than in expectation.

“This system was introduced to get rid of umpire howlers, and it exists so that players have a shot. The same applies with examination re-mark enquiries,” said Dean.

Writing in TES last year, Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL, said that schools and colleges had “lost faith in the ability of exam boards to mark exam papers accurately” after the number of GCSE and A-level papers sent for re-marking rose by 48 per cent.

Ofqual believes that technology might hold the answer to better marking – specifically, the introduction of on-screen marking. This, the watchdog argues, would help to improve the security and logistics around marking, but also facilitate item-level marking so that parts of a single student’s exam would be distributed across a number of examiners.


More transparency

Dean told the conference that more transparency was needed. All A-level teachers should have a right to know what an examiner is looking for, he argued.

But the subject matter tested is complex, Scharaschkin responded. “We need to be able to assess the actual performances that the candidates have and in A-levels they are complicated, subtle and nuanced,” he said.

Ofqual has threatened to publicly name and shame those exam boards that do not submit at least 80 per cent of their marks to Ofqual by early July. But does this go far enough? Dean told the conference that more work is needed.

“I think that there is scope for looking at standardisation of assessment processes and for weeding out where there might be examiners that just haven’t got it,” he said. “I do think it is about aspiring to get it right first time. That’s what we’ve got to aim for.


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