Re-marks: are they really worth it?

17th August 2018 at 00:00
Submitting students’ exam papers for review is costly – and it is also risky, given that grades can go down as well as up. So, how do cash-strapped schools decide whether to take a punt on a pupil? Elliott Douglas takes a look

It is GCSE results day, and you find yourself faced with a dilemma: Jacob has worked hard throughout the year, his exam technique is top notch and his mock results were excellent. Yet his final GCSE mark does not reflect this at all.

You are sure that one of his papers has been marked unjustly, but your head of department refuses to have the script reviewed by the exam board. The process is costly, your class already has the best results in the department and the school’s headline figures would not be significantly affected.

But what about Jacob? Determined to get him the best deal possible, you eventually decide to phone his parents to suggest, confidentially, that they request a review of marking.

The paper is duly sent off. And Jacob’s score improves by 18 marks, pushing him over a grade boundary.

Amid the inevitable highs and lows of exam season, there are often results like Jacob’s that just don’t make sense. In those instances, teachers do not have a simple job to work out what has happened. Did the student simply have a bad day? Would a review make a difference to the overall grade? What if the paper is submitted for a review and the grade actually goes down? Is Jacob’s story the exception to the rule?

With new exam specifications bringing uncertainty, budgets tighter than ever and students’ grades on the line, the decision to send a paper for review is not one to be taken lightly. So the question teachers have to ask themselves is: are re-marks really worth the effort?

To answer that, it’s important to understand exactly what a “re-mark” involves.

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents the exam boards, says that, since the recent curriculum and exam reforms, “there is no such thing as a ‘re-mark’, but a review of marking that can include a clerical check and a second examiner review to identify genuine marking errors or unreasonable marking”.

Each exam board now offers three different post-results review services. The first, the clerical check, consists of what the exams regulator Ofqual calls “an administrative error review for an individual assessment (“Service 1”)”; the second is a review of the marking for an assessment (“Service 2”). The final option is a review of the moderation of a whole school’s internal assessment (“Service 3”).

In a statement to Tes, the JCQ stresses that “a grade can go down as well as up as a result of a review of marking”.

Despite this possible pitfall, it seems that plenty of schools are still willing to request reviews. According to Ofqual’s Reviews of Marking and Moderation report (see, in 2017 5.9 per cent of all GCSE grades were challenged and 1.4 per cent were changed. This was an increase on the previous year, in which 5.3 per cent of grades were challenged and 1 per cent were changed. For A levels and AS levels (GCEs), the numbers were also higher: 4.6 per cent were challenged and 1 per cent were changed in 2017, up from 4.2 per cent and 0.8 per cent respectively in 2016.

This rise should perhaps not come as a surprise. After all, 2017 was the year in which the first cohort of students sat the reformed GCSE exams in English and maths, with papers being graded 1-9, instead of A*-G. There were new specifications to follow and there was widespread concern over the quality and consistency of marking. One marker, who wishes to remain anonymous, described the process as “shambolic”. Amid all this, asking for a review must have been particularly tempting.

Going in blind

But the review process itself has also come under heavy fire. In an online poll conducted by Tes in June this year, 79 per cent of participants said that the reviewing process was not as clear or straightforward as it should have been – an issue that has perhaps been further complicated by the fact that Ofqual introduced changes to the requirements for reviews of marking and moderation in August 2016.

For one exam board, a failure to review properly brought consequences.

Following an investigation by Ofqual, AQA admitted, in December 2017, to failing to follow regulations around reviews of exam grades. The exam board issued an undertaking promising to change the way that it trains and monitors its reviewers.

So how should last year’s process inform teachers in making decisions this year? Well, it is important to note that, over several years, this has not been a trend of increasing appeals or increasing successes of appeals.

In 2016, there were actually fewer challenges to grades than in 2015; 2 per cent of all GCE and GCSE entries were subject to review in 2016, down from 2.5 per cent in 2015.

And as for last year’s figures, Ofqual’s Reviews of Marking and Moderation report indicates that the overall increase in reviews was “mainly due to increases in the number of English/English language and English literature reviews; a result of increases in both the number of exams taken in reformed qualifications and candidates certificating in these subjects”.

The report acknowledges that subjects like English are also often more likely to be queried as “there is not always a single ‘right’ mark for a student’s response”.

But if turbulence associated with the reforms really is to blame, are the exam boards confident that they can get the issues around marking and reviews ironed out before this year’s students, who were the first to sit reformed exams in several subjects, receive their results? Will this year be another year in which it will be worth taking a punt on a review?

“It is not possible to predict the number of reviews that will be made this year,” says a JCQ spokesperson. ”A decision to enter a candidate for a review, the outcome of which can mean a grade can go down as well as up, is one for a school or college.”

However, they add: “The awarding bodies are confident that the grades issued to candidates will be correct and reflect their performance. Awarding bodies devote a huge amount of time and resources to ensure their markers and reviewers are well trained in any new processes and they understand what is expected of them.”

According to our anonymous marker, referred to above, this statement holds true as far as training goes. After signing up to mark scripts again this year, she has found the experience to be “markedly different” to that of the previous year.

“The training was significantly improved and my team leader is much more hands-on and informative than my previous one. It seems as though the exam board have taken last year into account and are actively trying to ensure it does not happen again,” she says.

And Ofqual is optimistic that where reviews do need to occur, that process will also run more smoothly than it did last year.

Julie Swan, executive director for general qualifications at Ofqual, refers teachers to their Regulating GCSEs, AS and A levels: guide for schools and colleges (, which provides “clear information for teachers about the review process” and helps schools to make sure they are requesting reviews for the right reasons.

“If teachers believe there has been an error in the way a student’s work was marked, they should consider requesting a review of the marking,” says Swan. “In the past, some schools and colleges have requested reviews simply because the mark was just below a grade boundary. This can be costly for them as our rules are clear that a mark must only be changed to correct a marking error.”

In 2017, this was not always the case, Swan admits, but she hopes that exam boards have solved the problems this year.

“Our analyses of initial and reviews of marking data for summer 2017 provided clear evidence that not all exam boards had fully implemented our rules. Some marks were being changed on review even where there was no error,” she explains.

“We have been clear with the exam boards that this must not be repeated this year; we saw improvements for the November 2017 resits. Our rules are in place so that errors are corrected, while making sure students on whose behalf reviews are requested are not unfairly advantaged over others. We are determined the arrangements are as fair as possible for all students.”

Raising the stakes

This should mean there is less reason to challenge a mark, and more reason to trust the system if a mark does need challenging.

But it is not just the perceived reliability of the marking or the reviewing that dictates a teacher’s view on a review. Cost plays a role, too. And usually, it is the school that foots the bill.

Teachers don’t seem to begrudge their departments paying for reviews, but what they do resent are the costs attached to actually seeing a student’s exam paper – a service that exam boards call “access to scripts” or ATS. These costs can prevent the teacher from making an educated guess as to whether a review is worthwhile.

“If I could read through a student’s paper and know the mark they got for each question, then I would be in a credible place to query it, but without the paper I’m really only able to go on my own professional judgement and their performance in mocks,” says Michael Nott, head of English at Greenwood Academy.

Ofqual, likewise, recognises that having access to scripts is important.

“Exam boards are increasingly making GCSE scripts available before the deadline for requesting a review – all make A-level scripts available, of course. This helps teachers make an informed decision about whether to request a review,” says Swan.

How much boards charge for ATS varies. For 2018, AQA is charging £14.35 per script for access to a priority copy (which schools will receive no later than 6 September); and £11.30 for a non-priority copy (which will be received no later than 1 November). OCR charges £11.75 for a priority script and £11.35 for non-priority, while WJEC charges £11 for ATS, whether the script is priority or not. Pearson, on the other hand, offers free access to scripts, except where a candidate’s script has already been subject to a “post-result service amend”, in which case, it charges £12.20.

Where departments are requesting access to multiple scripts, therefore, the costs can quickly mount up. And that’s not taking into account the labour cost of teachers reviewing the scripts and deciding which papers could be worth submitting for review.

For Emily Seeber, head of science at Bedales School in Hampshire, this process is painstaking: she goes through every single paper for errors, just in case. “It takes about three full days each for GCSE and A level,” she says.

There is also a socioeconomic angle to the issue of paying for access to scripts and reviews of marking, as one head of psychology points out: “In more financially advantageous areas, parents can afford to take a punt [on accessing a script]. They also might be more likely to push the school into paying for a re-mark.”

As for what the reviews themselves cost, that varies, depending on the level and priority of check that a school requests – and, with some boards, the type of exam. OCR, for example, charges £16.90 per candidate for a clerical recheck, and £47 for a review of marking, for both GCSE and A level. AQA, on the other hand, has different fees depending on whether the review is for a GCSE or A-level paper. And exam boards waive the cost of the review completely in cases where a student’s grade changes as a result of the process, regardless of whether the grade goes up or down.

Of course, as the anonymous marker points out, exam boards couldn’t practically afford not to charge for the review process. “If the service was free, it could result in all scripts having to be re-marked, and this is simply impossible,” she says.

The cost factor is a big one when you consider that the majority (55 per cent) of reviews in 2017 resulted in no change to the student’s marks. And of those reviews that did result in a mark change, the marks increased in 72 per cent of cases, which means that in 28 per cent of cases, students’ marks actually went down.

It’s also worth pointing out that, even where marks went up, the increase was usually so small that overall grades might not be affected. According to Ofqual, in 2017 “nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of all reviews resulted in either no mark change or a change of one mark, and less than 8 per cent of reviews resulted in a mark change of five marks or more”.

Call or fold?

All this would suggest that re-marks are a tricky business, where no grade change is more common than a grade going up. Yet, while consideration of the likelihood of success, the cost or how many marks a paper may go up should perhaps determine a teacher’s decision on a re-mark, there is usually a factor that holds more weight than all three: the teacher-student relationship.

As assessment expert Professor John Gardner, deputy principal (education and students) at the University of Stirling, emphasises: exam marking is not a science.

“The public are not fully informed of the imprecision of marking,” he says. “Ultimately, in many exams, the student’s grade comes down to the examiner’s judgement rather than any scientific measurement.”

If the system is going to sum up 12 years of schooling in a number based on a judgement call, then where a teacher knows their student well and suspects that student has been wronged, they will fight for that student no matter the cost, the stats or the dangers of grades going down. Sometimes, as one teacher puts it, “the act of solidarity in asking for a re-mark is almost more important than whether the request produces a positive result”.

Elliott Douglas is a freelance journalist


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