We published our final report into exam marking last week. It’s a good piece of work, worth a read to get a full sense of what is going on. Perhaps inevitably however, the media focused fairly narrowly on what we had to say about appeals rather than on the broader marking system as a whole.
We know that for some questions there is no absolute right mark. Examiners can have a legitimate difference of opinion, and exam boards allow for that in the tolerances they set for first marking. And we know that the majority of re-grades for candidates originally near a grade boundary are because the appeals system puts a second (usually senior) examiner’s judgement above the first.
When a candidate moves up a grade on appeal, the average marking difference is between one and two marks – in other words, within the original tolerance. This likely reflects a perfectly acceptable difference of examiner opinion, rather than a mistake. However, it leaves an impression that the original mark was wrong, when it was no more ‘wrong’ than the second mark.
Sometimes (rarely) marks are truly wrong, often because of problems associated with mark schemes: late changes to papers may not have been carried through to the mark scheme, or else a marker wrongly interprets the mark scheme, for example. What is most striking though is how little does go wrong. However, unless exam boards are open about such mistakes, those on the receiving end and those who hear of them have their trust and confidence in marking undermined.
So, what is to be done? We will develop a new and better appeals system, yes, but that is not an end in itself. We will require exam boards to own up publicly and promptly when things do go wrong. We will take action against exam boards when those mistakes happen. And we will also develop measures of the quality of marking overall (there are no common measures at the moment).
We want to get to the point where we all know what quality of marking to expect and we know if and when any exam board does not deliver to that standard. A better understanding of the system among teachers – and more teachers being markers – could help too.
These are all important steps – and ones that we are confident will help to ensure we have an open and transparent marking system that we can all have confidence in.