Education: Shortcomings of the exam marking process that grades depend on

letter writing STOCK
letter writing STOCK

It’s getting to that nerve wracking time of year when the A Level and GCSE results are revealed and thousands of young people at Sheffield schools will be keeping their fingers crossed.

A Level results are first up next week, with GCSE results following the week after. The importance of these for the people involved cannot be overstated. The results the students are presented with on those Thursday mornings can literally be life changing.

There are fewer chances to ask questions

The week before results day is also an anxious time for teachers. There’ll be plenty of teachers losing sleep in the run up to results day, sharing in the nervousness with our city’s children.

My personal experience is that the worry and sleepless nights kick in round about now. It’s something that has an increasing impact on the summer holiday. I never book a holiday in the week of results day or the week before it because it will be ruined by exam anxiety.

Many teachers are fearful of the coming year if their exam results are below expected levels. It’s a pressure of the job that is being intensified by the demand for improving results, yet it is harder and harder to predict what the results will be now that most subjects have moved to exam-only specifications.

So the results that are handed out on the next two Thursdays will be up in the air for many students and their teachers – with both seeing their immediate futures depend on them.

But with more rigour being demanded by OFSTED, surely we can sleep safe in the knowledge that the exam boards have got this process covered and all the papers will be marked accurately?

Sadly, this is not always the case.

Howling errors by exam boards are quickly picked up on by the media, for example when there is an exam question that covers material not on the specification or when a maths problem does not provide enough information.

Even more concerning, though, are the shortcomings of the exam-marking process. You know, the process that our young people are depending on to deliver them the grades they deserve.

While the majority of students will undoubtedly get accurate results there will be those that have had papers poorly marked and miss out on what they were expecting.

I have experience of working for more than one exam board over a number of years and I have been seriously unhappy about some of the changes that have been made to the marking process over the years. Much of it is down to penny pinching.

The biggest example of this is seen in the standardisation process. This is where the markers get together and agree how they are going to allocate marks. It’s the teaching equivalent of making sure everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet.

It used to be the case that all the markers would meet at a large venue, split into small groups with their team leaders and discuss example answers at length. There would be time to listen to other people’s opinions, ask question and make sure you were ready for the job before you left.

Broadband technology in every home means that many of these meetings take place online. This involves listening to somebody dictate how it’s going to be marked with very limited interaction.

There are a fewer chances to ask questions and hardly any chance to compare notes with colleagues. And that’s before you consider all the distractions in the home.

I’ve completed online standardisation meetings and been completely clueless about how some questions are going to be marked. It simply doesn’t work well.

Of course, many of the markers are teachers. But teachers don’t get extra time off school to mark these scripts. It has to be fitted in to a very tight window, meaning the scripts are marked late at night in many cases – prime territory for mistakes to be made by tired people.

Teachers who undertake marking should get protected free periods at school and perhaps a couple of days working at home to ensure it is done properly. Exam marking is good for professional development and benefits their students in future years, so we need more teachers to take it on.

Sadly, recruitment is a serious issue for exam boards. The pressure of marking thousands of answers in a short space of time – late in the evening – is too much for many teachers and the drop-out rate is significant.

Last year, one exam board was offering those teachers £150 bonus if they returned to complete their marking. This year, a second marking season had to be held for some subjects because the job wasn’t finished.

If we want more accurate results, we must put more effort into the way we standardise and give teachers more time to get actively involved with marking.