Quality of marking: a shared endeavour

02 October 2013

Sustainable improvement in the quality of marking can be achieved if schools and exam boards in the UK work together, Cambridge Assessment’s Group Chief Executive Simon Lebus has told the Headmaster and Headmistresses’ Conference annual meeting.

In a series of seminars at the London conference, chaired by Patrick Derham, Head Master of Rugby School, Mr Lebus addressed some of the concerns raised in an HMC report on marking which was published last September.

He gave a picture of the scale of the challenge that exam boards face each year when he explained that there were 860,000 A Level exam results, 1.4 million AS Level results and 5.6 million GCSE results last year. All that equated to a massive 15.4 million scripts which were marked by around 51,000 examiners within a two-and-a-half month timeframe.

Mr Lebus observed that complaint levels had risen over the last three or four years, with 276,000 Enquiries About Results last year. A low percentage of these enquiries led to grade changes, with 0.57 per cent of grades being changed at A Level and 0.53 per cent at GCSE. Mr Lebus acknowledged that this was not an acceptable level and pointed out that the world class standard in manufacturing was 3.4 defects per million parts.

“Public exams rely on trust and confidence, and if these are absent then the system won’t work properly,” said Mr Lebus.

He said there were a number of factors which might cause a lack of confidence in marking, and which had made the system more adversarial, including changes to exam style and structure and accountability pressures on schools. He also referenced the ‘traditional’ challenge of balancing assessment reliability with validity, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. He said it would not be right to mark an English exam as one would a mathematics exam, for example. Creative writing did not lend itself to that sort of precision.

He told the audience that Cambridge Assessment and its UK exam board OCR were taking action. A working party had been set up which included representatives from HMC, the Association of School and College Leaders, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Girls’ Schools Association along with OCR. Its remit is ‘to examine and research opportunities for improving confidence in the reliability of marking’.

He hoped that OCR could work with schools to encourage teachers to become involved in examining.

“Sustainable improvement in the quality of marking needs to be a shared endeavour,” he said. “This would bring about a sense of shared responsibility for exam outcomes and for maintaining confidence in the exam system”.

Mr Derham is the chairman of the working party. He told the audience that he had found that Cambridge Assessment and OCR were “prepared to listen, and prepared to improve”. He also echoed Mr Lebus’ call for schools to encourage more teachers to become examiners.

Assigning grades to students’ work in the UK is a complicated and large scale process. OCR has put together a simple guide to the marking and grading process.