The ‘voodoo’ solution to an expanding workload

8th April 2016 at 01:00
An online ‘comparative judgement’ marking system could revolutionise how teachers assess pupils’ work

A Growing number of schools are embracing a “voodoo” solution to marking in an attempt to cut teachers’ excessive workload.

Teachers are hopeful that an alternative approach – which replaces laborious marking with snappy judgements – will magic away the hours spent evaluating pupils’ work.

Traditional marking could become a thing of the past, education experts say, if schools and exam boards embrace comparative judgement – a system where an examiner makes a series of judgements on pairs of pieces of work (see box, “No marking: how it works”, right).

Dr Chris Wheadon, founder of organisation No More Marking – which promotes comparative judgements in education – believes that the current marking systems are unhelpful and burdensome. “If you get rid of mark schemes completely, then it does work. The accuracy of marking is appalling,” the assessment expert told TES.

And now the academic has the support of a number of leading education experts – including Daisy Christodoulou, head of assessment at the Ark academy chain, who believes the approach has “real potential” in schools.

“It feels a bit like voodoo if you are so used to the traditional moderation method. But when it comes out right, it feels very positive and it saves so much time,” she told TES.

The approach involves teachers making simple comparative judgements between pairs of assignments. These are then aggregated by computer software to produce a rank order.

Five Ark primary schools have begun trialling No More Marking’s free comparative judgment engine online, as have a group of secondary school teachers, and they are not alone. There has been a surge in the number of schools trying out the approach since the beginning of 2016.

More than just a fad

“It feels like a genuine new idea rather than a fad. The more people who talk about it, the more people who are interested in it. It has really sparked off and taken a life of its own,” Ms Christodoulou added.

Dr Wheadon, who originally set up the service to compare different exam boards’ GCSE maths papers for Ofqual, told TES that he was “surprised” by the speed with which teachers have taken to it and seen it as a “solution” to burdensome marking.

He said: “I wasn’t really aware of the heights of marking madness, particularly at primary. The marking they do is far too extensive.”

Currently there is a great deal of pressure on key stage 1 and key stage 2 teachers to assess and moderate writing against a lengthy, time-consuming checklist of criteria.

Moorside Community Primary School in Salford, which has been trying to find new ways to assess children, tried out the No More Marking website earlier this year.

Teachers at the school used the system to assess 450 KS1 and KS2 pupils’ responses to a writing task. The judgements – which were made by 38 staff members at the school – took around an hour. Using the old system, it would have taken at least five hours per member of staff, TES was told.

Setting the standard

Jason Hughes, Moorside’s deputy headteacher, plans to use the approach in the future – potentially on a termly basis. He said: “There does need to be some sort of benchmark standard in there, so the criteria [under the old system] can be helpful – but we are trying to move away from that being used against every piece of work.”

The school also plans to use the findings to build up a portfolio of writing standards for Years 1, 3, 4, 5 – as these are currently not set by the government.

But it is not just primary schools that can benefit from such a system. According to Dr Wheadon, a number of secondary schools have used it to judge mock GCSEs, as well as termly writing assessments.

Embracing change

The head of a secondary English department at a school in Lewisham, London, is planning to get rid of marking schemes altogether from next term, after seeing how the new approach could reduce workload (see box, “A teacher’s experience”, below).

And teaching consultant and blogger David Didau, who has been trialling the system in Swindon Academy all-through school, said: “It takes a solitary, laborious pursuit and turns it into a quick and collaborative process. Teachers are quite excited about this.”

Mr Didau, who was also a member of the government-commissioned Marking Policy Review Group investigating teacher workload, added: “It is minutes compared to hours of work. It’s massively more reliable than anything we can get with a mark scheme. At some point the exam boards will have to embrace it – it’s the future.”

But Dr Wheadon acknowledged that it could take time for teachers to get used to the “culture change”, especially at secondary level. “English and history teachers in secondary schools are far more sceptical. They say, ‘What about grammar and spelling, and how do I assess creativity separately?’”

He added: “Teachers often go back into the marking mentality and spend too long thinking about their decision.”

Ms Christodoulou said that some teachers had been sceptical at first as they didn’t know how it worked. She added: “We are reading the assessments with the rubric in the back of our minds but we can move away from that and get a feel for the quality.

“It is such a different method that all the different aspects can seem quite alien. To begin with, everyone is cautious, but when you use it, it comes alive.”


No marking: how it works

Teachers set an assessment and then scan and upload all the responses onto the No More Marking website.

Once on the programme, teachers will judge two pieces of work and choose the highest-quality assignment based on their gut instinct, rather than a marking scheme.

They will continue this process – selecting the best out of two – until all pieces of work have been judged.

The time it takes depends on the quantity of the work uploaded and the judges.

Once completed, the system will aggregate the experts’ marks accordingly.

This allows teachers to have discussions about assessments to help drive feedback on how performance might be improved.

It will highlight when there is significant variation of scripts and whether an individual assessor is marking differently to the others.

A teacher’s experience

The “revolutionary” replacement for marking is “like magic”, according to Tom Needham, head of English at the Trinity Church of England School, in Lewisham, London.

He has been won over by the comparative judgements method and plans to introduce it permanently in his department after Easter for all end-of-term summative assessments.

Last term Mr Needham uploaded 120 scripts from Year 7 pupils onto a comparative judgement website and gathered six teachers to judge the assessments.

“It took each teacher around 30 to 40 minutes to effectively mark, rank and complete judgements,” he said. “Usually it would take [a teacher] around three hours to mark 30 scripts and then you would have a moderation meeting that might take an extra two hours.

“It massively reduces the time spent on the process. How it works is like magic. We are looking at it as a complete replacement because of the speed and the reliability.”

Next term, the department will use the system to moderate Year 11 GCSE English coursework – which will consist of four pieces of work each from 115 pupils. Staff in the school’s maths department are also interested in using it.

Mr Needham added: “We are all aware that when we use mark schemes, it’s inherently very subjective so getting rid of that is a good thing.”

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