Thousands of pupils could be harmed by “fundamentally flawed” proposals that would make it harder for schools to successfully challenge “suspect” GCSE and A-level grades, headteachers are warning.
Two leading heads’ groups from the state and independent sectors are urging exams regulator Ofqual to drop proposed changes they describe as “unpersuasive, misdirected and likely to make the current unsatisfactory situation worse”.
But exam boards have hit back, defending their “world-class” markers, and claiming that schools have misunderstood the system.
Ofqual has proposed that the boards should be able to raise a pupil’s GCSE or A-level grade following a school’s challenge only if a second examiner finds that the original mark was not “reasonable”.
But the NAHT headteachers’ union and the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents leading independent schools, argue that the test of reasonableness is a “low bar” for marking accuracy that will make challenges harder.
The heads say the measure “loads the dice unfairly against candidates who may have been marked poorly”, adding that a proper re-mark is “the only credible response to a query about marking accuracy”.
Last year, more than 90,000 GCSE and A-level grades were changed following challenges and re-marks – the highest number on record, and a 17 per cent rise from the previous year (see graphic, opposite).
The heads’ groups argue that, given this rise in changed marks, it would be “perverse” for Ofqual reforms to effectively put more trust in boards’ original marks.
Such a move would fail to “tackle the key problem of ensuring accurate first-time marks for all candidates”, the heads argue.
But Michael Turner, director general of the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents the exam boards, said: “It’s disappointing that some organisations have decided to undermine the tens of thousands of teachers who, each year, mark exam papers to a world-class standard.
“Where grades change, most are due to a legitimate difference in the two examiners’ judgements and this is often found in subjects like English or history where there’s a level of interpretation. It’s a misunderstanding of the system to claim this equals poor marking.”
Ofqual believes the system of exam re-marks must be overhauled because exam boards are changing “reasonable” marks when they are challenged by schools.
In some cases, the watchdog has said, the examiner re-marking a student’s paper after a complaint from a school has a more generous interpretation of the mark scheme than the original marker, causing them to increase a pupil’s grade even if the original mark was fair.
‘An unfair advantage’
This gives an unfair advantage to pupils who challenge their grades, and a “misleading” impression of the number of inaccurate marks, according to the regulator.
Speaking today, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, said that Ofqual’s proposed new approach “effectively concedes that there are no objective grounds for preferring one mark over another, which rather calls into question the whole purpose of exams in the first place.
“The proposals will discourage underresourced secondary schools from challenging rogue grades as they will be even more concerned about spending time and money fighting a system that is stacked against them.”
The NAHT and HMC are calling for the introduction of a £10 million government fund to pay for rigorous checks of exam papers when marks are challenged.
They say that such papers should be given a “double-blind” re-mark, which, they argue, is a “gold standard” for accuracy (see box, “What headteachers want”, above).
Chris King, chair of HMC and headmaster of Leicester Grammar School, described Ofqual’s proposals as “unfair, fundamentally flawed and likely to put more pupils’ life chances at risk”.
“They must not be allowed to go ahead,” he said. “The approach seems to be ‘we have too many complaints; let’s make it harder to complain’. This is no way to restore confidence in fairness and accuracy.”
Julie Swan, Ofqual’s acting executive director for general qualifications, said: “There is no question that marking mistakes should be avoided and corrected if they happen, but differences of professional judgement are a very different matter.
“For some meaningful assessments, there will never be only one ‘right’ mark, and it is wrong to suggest otherwise.”
‘Too many grades are wrong’
Peter Hamilton, headmaster of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, an independent secondary in Elstree, Hertfordshire, has seen major changes to his pupils’ exam results after challenging their grades.
Last summer, 99 of the 172 pupils who took an English literature GCSE at his school had their grades changed. One of these pupils saw their grade rise from a C to an A.
Mr Hamilton tells TES that it is “absolute poppycock” to suggest that markers are being more generous when re-marking papers.
“I just don’t believe that for a second,” he says. “There’s no reason people would think, ‘Oh well, I’ll just give them a few extra marks.’”
“The fundamental flaw is that Ofqual doesn’t believe there’s a correct mark,” he adds. “I do believe there’s a correct mark.
“Every year you know there’s going to be a raft of issues [with marking]. There’s been a failure to invest enough in ensuring that the people who really matter in the system – not Ofqual, not the exam boards but the boys and girls whose university places depend on this – get the right results.”
Mr Hamilton says that he has seen pupils and their families go through “anguish” after having their university place called into question because of low results that were later changed.
The rising cost of appeals
Schools are expected to spend £166 million on GCSE and A-level appeals over the next five years, according to analysis by a University of London academic.
Professor Richard Kimbell, founder of the Technology Education Research Unit at the University of London and an adviser at the education technology company Digital Assess, has found that the cumulative cost of appeals between 2016 and 2020 is set to soar.
His analysis assumes that the number of challenges and the proportion that are successful will rise over the next five years at the same rate as they have for the previous five years.
If this happens, the number of grades that are challenged but not changed will hit 1.4 million by 2020.
Given that schools pay an average of £34 to challenge a grade (if unsuccessful), the cumulative cost of appeals over the five years from 2016-20 will be £166.4 million, Professor Kimbell found.
“The figures of exam appeals are spiralling out of control and we cannot continue as we are,” he says. “To reduce the numbers of exams appealed each year we need to fundamentally change the way in which we assess exams.”
What headteachers want
Headteachers are pushing for a £10 million fund provided by the government that would pay for “double-blind” re-marks of papers that schools challenge.
Under this system, two examiners would independently re-mark a script. If their marks differed they would have to reach a joint decision, after discussion, about the most appropriate mark.
Research by Ofqual, published in December, found that this system was the most accurate of four different approaches to reviewing marks that the regulator analysed. But it rejected the solution as too difficult and too expensive.
It concluded that the difference in accuracy between this system and the current approach – in which a reviewing examiner checks the original marker’s decisions – was “noticeable but not substantial, given the potential costs and difficulties of introducing such a model”.
Ofqual’s proposed reforms
The exams regulator says its research has indicated that some markers reviewing exam scripts that have been challenged give a higher mark to a paper that was marked reasonably the first time around.
To prevent this, it is proposing an “explicit rule to stop exam boards replacing one reasonable mark with an alternative reasonable mark” when papers are challenged.
The rule would state that exam boards “must not change a mark or moderation outcome that could reasonably have been given by a marker or moderator applying the mark scheme”.