Fine margins yet huge mistakes

Contemplating the world of public examinations is like living in the Matrix. There are two worlds but which one is real? The world where grandiose plans for reform are solemnly presented by ministers as if the system works like clock-work or the one which appears dangerously over-stretched and creaking under the weight of expectation?

It is well documented that schools are engaged in a kind of guerrilla warfare with examination boards who are grappling with a perfect storm of providing a service as usual and reacting to government imposed reform. I have some sympathy. Indeed so too do Ofqual it would appear, who have intervened as a sanity check on the timetable for exam reform giving the exam boards a breathing space. However, despite my sympathy, I worry that something pernicious is happening. The widely publicised challenges to the exam boards, questions raised at the Select Committee in Parliament, and general unease of teachers are eating away at the trust and confidence in the exam process.

Rather like believing a pound note is literally worth this amount and is not merely a piece of paper with a fancy watermark, we need to believe that the exam grade is an accurate and fair reflection of a student’s performance under examination conditions. Sadly schools, including ours, are reporting – angrily – anomalies in marking which are baffling. In fairness, many wrongs have been righted after a remark by the boards but this has raised questions in its own right. Illustrative of this is one student’s work this year where a complete page was not marked – despite the paper being double marked. Needless to say a third re-mark resulted in an improved grade.

The broader issue is believing in the grade. The pressure on the student sitting on a university offer is huge. It was ever thus but my sense is that the confidence in the grade awarded has been eroded in recent years. And confidence is everything. So much is at stake. Let us not forget that the grade is the passport stamped. This should be with confidence, good to go on to the next stage of the journey. Our experience is that the increasingly fine margins in exams can be jeopardised by huge mistakes. It is important to remember that every exam statistic, every grade, relates to an individual and their lives.

My grave concern is that exam boards are battling to maintain the highest standards – of course they are not hell bent on destroying the dreams of students. However, the pressure on the boards is such that injustices will inevitably occur. Whilst our political masters point to a future where standards will be driven up, the aspirations of today’s students are dampened by the very human mistakes of the exam boards today.

3 thoughts on “Fine margins yet huge mistakes

  1. Heather F

    I agree that there is a problem when the currency of grades is questioned but I have limited sympathy for the boards. Too many problems over inconsistency of marking are self inflicted. As an examiner I have seen an erosion of marking standards. In my subject teachers who have no experience teaching the subject have been offered contracts and most significantly online standardisation leads to mechanistic interpretation of mark schemes and playing safe and thus squeezing grade boundaries. Poor mark scheme guidance is no longer challenged as it would be in aface to face meeting. As the pool of markers with experience of meeting from the days of face to face dwindles these problems will get ever worse.

  2. tonyparkin

    When I did a PGCE in Durham in 1972 one of the better lecture series was on assessment and examination, and particularly on the statistics of validity and reliability.

    One fact that stuck with me was that one researcher had just done some work on Physics A level grades from one of the smaller exam boards. The variation error was such that a candidate getting a C grade had an EQUAL probability of being awarded a B or a D grade. In the days when a B got you into a good university course, and a D got you nowhere. And the quality of markers and process were far higher than of late. This was cited as an extreme example, but not unique.

    I have been sceptical about the reliability of the examination process throughout my career in education, and amused by the attempts to give the impression of reliability and accuracy. Though it did untold damage to too many children, at least the #GCSEfiasco highlighted the political and subjective nature of exam grading. And stories of the poor quality of marking and the need for re-marking are on the increase.

    Maybe if, instead of grades, the exam boards were required to meet the standards expected of academic papers, and quote marks as a numerical percentage, along with a statistical measure to indicate reliability (eg 75% ± 2) we could restore faith in grading? Or would the truth totally destroy the system?.


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