The Examination Casino.
In recent years the press has increasingly reported on grave concerns about GCSE and A Level public examination marking. These have included markers without relevant or recent teaching experience, markers with no teaching experience whatsoever, and in one case, the use of payroll staff at a particular Examination Board to mark a backlog of Religious Studies GCSE scripts. Sadly, markers have also commented publicly on overly burdensome marking loads, a lack of training and a lack of mentoring by team leaders – the “experts” who are supposed to moderate the quality of marking.
Pay is low for markers and tales of marking at 5:00 am, at the end of a long working day, on the train and even down the pub with the football in the background are not uncommon. If teachers are marking at the end of a 12-hour day, it’s no surprise that reliability and consistency of results are questionable. It therefore comes as no great shock to read that complaints and appeals are on the increase. It seems that each and every year at Solihull, our pass rates have crept upwards as appeal upon appeal has been successfully submitted to the Boards. In some cases, we have been forced to push for centre re-marks where the results of an entire cohort have caused us concern. Having said that, the Exam Boards are not keen to agree to centre re-marks, even when the evidence appears damning. Another difficulty is that of marketing Solihull through its examinations success; this is clearly made much more difficult when the statistics are prone to annual revision.
One suggestion for change is that each school should mark a proportion of papers based on their entry for each examination. This would mean that qualified teachers would be marking the papers and that each school would benefit from the same level of professional development and understanding of examination requirements. In schools like Solihull, we are fortunate to have an abundance of immensely professional teachers who all too often sadly find that marking is haphazard, unpredictable or just simply wrong. In some cases, markers have even added up scores incorrectly! Whether at GCSE or A Level, pupils spend two years working incredibly hard, and are then forced to play Russian Roulette by risking their entire futures on the validity of the final, sometimes dubious, assessment. Marking must not be done by people who do not have any deep, current or professional knowledge and must not be crammed into late nights and early mornings when speed of marking inevitably takes over and errors prove to be a likely and destructive outcome. Our pupils deserve better! Moreover, the system of current “accountability” in re-marks is flawed. Much psychological research will show that people tend to suffer from an anchoring bias, thus if a marker can see the previous mark when he or she re-marks the paper, then they will probably be biased in their reassessment. Consequently, the actual validity and reliability of re-marking may be dramatically worse than the Exam Boards present.
Returning to my suggestion that schools do the marking; if any school had to opt out, then they could do this for a fee which would be redirected to the school picking up the slack. Given how long most teachers stay in the profession, they would become extremely effective examiners within a couple of years and would then be able to provide decades of consistent marking. The bulk of the training of examiners and exam moderation could even be done in schools, since most schools would have a host of experienced examiners in-house. This would make training and moderation more convenient and less costly too. Most importantly, teachers would have time in the school day (made free by the loss of examination classes) to focus on high quality assessment. Furthermore, by representing their centre (school) teachers would have even more motivation to ensure that they mark to the very best of their ability. In terms of the burden on teachers, it should not be huge, since even a large A Level department will be able to divide the marking between them, resulting in each teacher marking no more than 50 or so scripts, a far cry from the 400 or so scripts teachers are currently asked to mark in an extremely limited time period.
There may also be other favourable consequences of such a system. Marking could be completed much quicker meaning that exams could be later in the summer term, or alternatively, exams could stay where they are and results could be published sooner, allowing pupils to apply for universities with their results in hand – a suggestion which was recently ruled out due to complaints from Exam Boards over getting marks published in time.
Whether this suggestion meets favour or not, one thing is clear; we cannot continue gambling with pupils’ lives in this manner and the default position in schools must not be to encourage ever increasing numbers of pupils and departments to push for re-marks. The stress on everyone concerned, pupil, parent and teacher is cruel and unsustainable.