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What keeps me awake at night - Drowning by numbers

Anonymous views from education's front line

Anonymous views from education's front line

This week: The writer is a maths examiner with Edexcel

The first problem on this summer's GCSE maths exam had me flummoxed: how long does it take to mark 34,000 questions? Yes, I was an Edexcel examiner with a PC and a mark scheme to negotiate, not a student with a blunt pencil and a dodgy calculator.

For maths exams, Edexcel uses a software system called ePen to administer your marking. This is much better than being swamped with huge wads of paper, as the system delivers scanned pages of student answers onto your PC screen. But while this helps, Edexcel also showers you with thousands of answers to mark for each exam question.

After I went through the preliminary trials to make sure I could follow the mark scheme accurately, my login page gave the breakdown of the 34,000 questions. I immediately thought, "I had better get a move on!" After an hour or so, I got used to the quirks of which buttons to press, then needed a short break. Believe me, this is not being lazy. The constant blipping around of the cursor from the answer pane to the mark box (Is it 0? Or 1? Or 2? Or 3?), to the "submit score" button, maybe back again to revise the score, then to the next question, makes you feel giddy.

In the break, I decided to "view progress". On three questions, I had marked a total of some 600 responses, less than 2 per cent of the total. OMG, as students say, I had to do this 50 more times before completion. I hoped I could speed up without developing an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The old paper-based drudgery has been replaced by new-tech intensity. Plus, it has all the regular IT problems. Why has the server slowed down? Is my PC software compatible? What is the IT help desk number? Sorting out these problems is done at my cost: Edexcel's #163;545.41 (including bonus) only comes when I have marked everything by their timetable.

#163;545.41 is 1.6p per mark. Not bad? Well, not a bad payment for some easy yesno questions. But many others involve looking carefully at what the student has done. Is that squiggle a 3 or a 5? Is that line close enough to where it should be for a mark? Is the mark scheme fair for this student's effort? You are free to send an answer for review, but are discouraged by the fact that it takes up more time.

A depressing calculation came to mind. If I answered half the questions at a rate of two seconds each, the other half at six seconds, nothing went wrong and I didn't have to correct anything, then that would add up to nearly 38 solid hours of head-splitting work. Factor in breaks, and the real working period is much longer than this. My constitution will determine how long for me, but the cash will need to pay for some post-marking therapy.

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