Of course, this couldn't last too long. This morning I awoke to news which nearly had me choking on my cornflakes. The exams regulator Ofqual has apparently decided that the fact so many schools are sending exam scripts for re-marking is because we are all busy manipulating our A*-C pass rate. To quote the review paper specifically, Ofqual stated that “A high volume of enquiries about results are, we believe, motivated by a speculative attempt to improve results...”
So let's examine the evidence. Ofqual argues that the exam system was designed in a "more innocent era" and that schools today are deliberately trying to shift their students over those all-important grade boundaries. Grades they noted were changed on 54,380 GCSE and A Level papers last year after 301,267 enquiries. Now I am sure that in some cases, schools have been playing games with the system, and I know the accountability culture of modern education has made this ever more prevalent. But if you gave me unlimited money, I would put every single GCSE and A Level paper in for a second marking. Why? Because experience tells me that of all the papers I have put in for re-marking over the years, around 45% (yes, you read that correctly) of them have been wrongly marked. I simply don't trust the system. On average, the papers I have put in have seen a rise of around 5.5 marks in total - somewhere around 3/4 of a grade. If that was applied across the board, my A*-C passes would have had me running round in circles on the ceiling, cheering and drinking champagne!! If I focus only on the ones which were moved up, then the the average increase is around 10 marks, or well over a grade per student. In the most extreme cases, such as 2013, when I sent in a sample of 10 scripts, all ten went up by a minimum of 11 marks and some went up by 24. The paper total was 80! This is the scale of the problem we are dealing with. Had I not sent those papers in, a whole GCSE cohort would have received marks which were up to 3 grades below their real results. This represents a fundamental failure of Ofqual to properly regulate the marking of exam boards.
Similar issues have occurred in the past at A Level, where re-marked papers were sent back with increases of 10-15%. The problem here is of a very different nature however. As so few students are willing to risk their A Level grades, I was never been able to secure a whole cohort re-mark, despite the increases being well over the board's own 5% threshold.This highlights another aspect of the system which Ofqual needs to address urgently. Namely, the appeals process in itself is flawed. For starters, my own anecdotal evidence suggests that markers given the task of dealing with enquiries about results are briefed not to move papers up unless it is absolutely necessary. This is made even worse by the fact that exam marking pay is linked essentially to how many papers you can mark in an hour. The best markers take their time to learn the content before they mark, but I am sure that doesn't happen in all situations. Exam boards seem to spend a great deal of time and money covering their own mistakes by pressuring their already poorly paid markers into rubber stamping previous decisions. This is made easier by the fact that markers are given access to the original mark, so the easiest thing for them to do is agree with the original decision, something which the HMC have been campaigning on for a while. At the most extreme end of this, exam boards are not even providing a second marker at all. In a sample of re-marks sent in for the GCSE OCR History Pilot, the original marker of my scripts was also the reviewing marker. Unsurprisingly he agreed with his original judgments. Why has Ofqual allowed this to go unchallenged?
Any appeal beyond this point goes into serious money, and very little chance of success. I am not sure I know of anyone who has managed to successfully challenge the outcome of an appeals process. Indeed, the whole process after EAR is completely opaque and it would take an incredibly supportive head to launch a full scale challenge against exam marking when the weight of evidence seems to rest on the side of the board. Teachers are therefore forced to conclude that they must have made mistakes. Conveniently, the boards also run a fairly lucrative sideline in advising schools on how to improve their performance through courses and training sessions. The access these give to exam board 'secrets' is another blog in itself, but just as a start, schools are often paying upwards of £300 for courses to tell them how teach exams which they may have been teaching correctly in the first instance.
These are all issues which Ofqual could and should investigate. At the moment however, it seems content to shift the blame onto schools for 'abusing' a system which is beyond broken. I have so little faith left in the examinations system in the UK that I feel each year becomes an increasing gamble. Every August is spent analysing student performance and looking for evidence of incompetence or poor quality control at the major exam boards. This has to stop! Until Ofqual deal with the exam boards directly and act to restore faith in the setting and marking of exams, schools will quite rightly attempt to get as many scripts as they can re-marked. This is the only way we can ensure we have some level of quality control in our marking. For my money, I will keep plugging away in support of the Queensland Assessment System, and hope that we really revolutionise examinations int the UK before they lose any of the credibility they once had.