Exam grad­ing isn’t get­ting any tougher

A com­plex process en­sures that all ex­ams are graded fairly and con­sis­tently. Alex Scha­raschkin ex­plains why exam boards need the help of statis­ti­cians, sci­en­tists and psy­chol­o­gists on an an­nual ba­sis

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - COMMENT -

HOW CAN I tell when exam sea­son is over? Well, apart from the fact that I work for an exam board, there’s one easy give­away: so­cial me­dia. This sum­mer has seen the con­tin­u­ing trend for stu­dents to bom­bard Twit­ter with their post-exam anal­y­sis: good or bad, al­ways pas­sion­ate and some­times very witty. We’ve had Charles Dar­win mon­key memes, calls for grade bound­aries to be low­ered, reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances by Sponge­bob Squarepants and a whole host of com­ments I couldn’t pos­si­bly repeat here. And now? Tum­ble­weed…

So what hap­pens next? The exam pa­pers are marked by tens of thou­sands of ex­am­in­ers who are mostly cur­rent teach­ers. They’ll mark stu­dents’ re­sponses (called scripts – AQA has around 7.5 mil­lion in to­tal) ei­ther on paper or on screen, de­pend­ing on the sub­ject.

We train them on how to use the mark scheme cor­rectly and how to mark to the right stan­dard. We check sam­ples of scripts as they’re marked to make sure ex­am­in­ers are mark­ing ac­cu­rately and con­sis­tently. We also set hid­den ques­tions for ex­am­in­ers mark­ing on screen. This means that, if an ex­am­iner isn’t get­ting it right, we can step in straight away – ei­ther pro­vid­ing more train­ing, or giv­ing the scripts to a dif­fer­ent ex­am­iner to be marked.

But mark­ing is just the first stage in the process. The sec­ond stage is “award­ing” – where we set the bound­aries that will de­ter­mine the grades that each stu­dent will be awarded. So de­spite all those calls on so­cial me­dia for exam boards to lower the grade bound­aries, they haven’t even been set yet. So given that we’re not in­flu­enced by sug­ges­tions on Twit­ter, how do we do it?

First of all, here’s why we need to do it. For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, exam boards have to set dif­fer­ent exam pa­pers each year, and the aim is for th­ese to be no harder or eas­ier than the pre­vi­ous year. In re­al­ity, though, there may be slight dif­fer­ences. So if we were to set grade bound­aries in ad­vance, stu­dents could get a lower grade if their paper was slightly more dif­fi­cult. Clearly, that wouldn’t be fair, so that’s why we only set grade bound­aries af­ter we’ve marked the scripts.

We set grade bound­aries for every exam paper, every con­trolled as­sess­ment and course­work com­po­nent of a sub­ject, every time the as­sess­ments are taken and grades are awarded. As well as be­ing fair to stu­dents, it also means that stan­dards are main­tained year on year.

Set­ting the grade bound­aries

Se­nior ex­am­in­ers meet and scru­ti­nise stu­dents’ exam per­for­mances. How­ever, ev­i­dence shows that no mat­ter how ex­pe­ri­enced or tal­ented an ex­am­iner is, it’s very hard to al­low for small dif­fer­ences in as­sess­ment dif­fi­culty when com­par­ing scripts from one year to the next.

If we re­lied solely on ex­am­in­ers’ judg­ments, there would be a real risk of the stan­dard vary­ing year to year. So in the in­ter­est of fair­ness to all stu­dents, a team of statis­ti­cians, data mod­el­ling spe­cial­ists, psy­chol­o­gists, sci­en­tists and ed­u­ca­tion­al­ists based at our Cen­tre for Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search and Prac­tice (CERP) work to­gether to sup­port our ex­pert ex­am­in­ers, and ad­vise AQA on set­ting grade bound­aries. The fi­nal step is ap­proval from the stan­dards reg­u­la­tor, Ofqual. The min­i­mum marks for each grade are then con­firmed and ap­plied to the marks each stu­dent achieved to pro­duce their fi­nal grade.

The process takes time. Over July, se­nior ex­am­in­ers at AQA will have made more than 2,000 grade bound­ary de­ci­sions. We run over 200 award­ing meet­ings, with a sep­a­rate meet­ing for every sin­gle GCSE and A-level sub­ject. Many meet­ings last two days or longer, so that ex­am­in­ers can take enough time over de­ci­sions to make sure they get them ab­so­lutely right.

But you might well ask: how do we main­tain stan­dards from one year to the next when things change, like this year’s new 9-1 grades for maths and English GCSES? It’s a per­fectly valid ques­tion, to which there is a per­fectly re­as­sur­ing an­swer: exam boards are used to deal­ing with change.

Be­fore join­ing AQA, I worked for one of its pre­de­ces­sor boards (AEB – the As­so­ci­ated Ex­am­in­ing Board) in the mid-1990s. This was a time of huge change in ed­u­ca­tion – GCSES were still new, and we were pre­par­ing for the in­tro­duc­tion of mod­u­lar ex­ams and AS lev­els.

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