Secret Teacher: we need to look at the lack of rigour in exam marking

The Secret Teacher
‘The exam board was so desperate for markers, I worry about those with less experience.’ Photograph: David Davies/PA

Like most schools across the country, my school requests that many of the exam papers sat by GCSE students are re-marked by a senior examiner if they are just a few marks off a grade boundary. This is common practice and especially true of English and humanities subjects where the mark scheme is applied much more subjectively than, say, something like maths where there is a clear right and wrong.

This year, we’ve seen a significant number of students’ marks going up by a whole grade boundary. As head of English, I should find this pleasing – after all, it’s a win for those specific students and it helps me reach my own performance management targets by raising the Progress 8 level for the department. But having also been a GCSE exams marker over the summer, for the new English GCSE specification, these re-marks are ringing alarm bells.

Concerns have been raised elsewhere about the inaccuracy of exam marking, and I have some serious worries myself, in particular, about the moderation and standardisation process. I’ve been an examiner in the past (albeit for a different examination board and for A-level rather than GCSE) and have always received face-to-face or chat room training. This was not the case this year. Other than having to mark a small batch of practice papers, I was good to go – let loose to determine the futures of students across the country.

Instead, the moderation process happened during the marking itself. Papers were generated via the online marking platform and randomly – every 20th paper or so – a test-case paper already marked by senior examiners would appear. Once that paper was marked, we’d get a notification telling us if we were in “tolerance” (that is, in line with what the senior examiners had awarded the paper).

Here’s why I was concerned. Being within tolerance meant within 12 marks of the moderated mark. Considering how tight the grade boundaries were this year, an examiner could have marked a paper at an entire grade or more above, or below, and still be allowed to continue marking. Great for the students whose papers were being marked by over-generous markers, but what about the other end of the spectrum?

The exam board was​ so desperate for markers, I worry about thos​e​ with less experience

If a paper was out of tolerance your ability to mark would be “paused” on the online marking system – and rightly so. But as long as you accepted feedback from your team leader, you would be allowed to keep marking. Despite being an experienced head of English, my marking was paused three times over the course of the process (I was marking 300 scripts).

I’m speaking out because I know that I’m not alone in my concerns. I spoke to a number of other exam markers – heads of English, assistant principals, English consultants and a vice principal – who all had similar experiences; they were paused from marking a few times and were all simply given formative feedback and then un-paused without any real continual monitoring of the accuracy of their work, as far as we were aware.

I took the marking responsibility incredibly seriously and reflected on the feedback given. Thanks to my experience in the subject, I could contextualise it and was sure that my marking was getting more accurate. But the exam board was so desperate for markers, I worry about those with less experience. On one morning in June, the reprographics officer from my school asked to borrow a book and then casually dropped into conversation that she was an English literature exams marker this year (despite qualifying as a teacher 10 years ago, not knowing the texts, and never actually teaching beyond her NQT year).

Then there was the mad rush at the end to get all of the papers marked. The exam board increased the price per script just to help clear the huge backlog. Here, again, I noticed something that made me uncomfortable. It appeared that, in the final couple of days, the moderated papers were taken out of the process.

This year’s group of children are already at a disadvantage to the students who have come before. They are the first generation for years whose English exams are worth 100% of their grade now that coursework has been taken out of the equation. They’re the first year group to receive numbers 1 to 9 instead of grades A* to U – putting them at a disadvantage with employers who don’t understand the new grading system, and there’s been confusion in schools as they’ve tried to adjust to the changes.

Of course, schools can ask for papers to be re-marked. But what happens to the students who go to schools that can’t afford to pay to have student papers re-marked? Or those in schools unwilling to put progress scores at risk by resubmitting a paper that could potentially be marked down? There is clearly an inequality issue at play here: students in poorer state schools already have more to overcome in order to reach their potential – from fewer school resources to socio-demographic contributors; let’s not add this to the list.

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