Ofqual sets out marking inquiry as challenges to exam grades increase

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With the percentage of enquires about results (EARs) rising year-on-year, Ofqual has set out plans to investigate the way examinations are marked.

With the percentage of enquires about results (EARs) rising year-on-year, Ofqual has set out plans to investigate the way examinations are marked.

The regulator has published the first of three reports into the quality of marking for GCSEs, A levels and other academic qualifications.

It gives an overview of how the marking system operates and identifies areas which will be explored in two more reports later this year.

It finds that while “most of the education community, students and the public” has confidence in the quality of marking for A levels and GCSEs, preliminary grades and marks are increasingly being contested. The report continues: “What is more, a significant (and growing) minority of teachers and headteachers tell us that they do not believe that marking has been good enough in recent years, especially in GCSEs.

“Confidence in marking fell noticeably last year because of concerns about GCSE English, but, even recognising the unusual circumstances, the recent trends are troubling.”

Last summer, 1.27 million candidates took GCSEs in 48 subjects while more than half a million took A/AS levels in 36 subjects. In total, more than 11 million GCSE and 4.1 million A/AS level external exams were taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, resulting in around 7.5 million results.

Statistics show that between 2011 and 2012, the number of EARs increased by 36 per cent compared with an increase in exam entries of 15 per cent.  

While this has been driven by the GCSE English grading debacle, the report adds: “In 2012, a total of 275,808 marking checks were requested for GCSE and A level exams, accounting for 

1.9 per cent of all scripts. This percentage has increased from 1.34 per cent in 2011 and has shown a steady increase over the last five years. In 2008 it was 0.91 per cent.”

The number of grade changes has also risen as a result. In summer 2012, 45,600 EARs resulted in a grade change.

The report adds: “While we must treat any EAR data with caution, the increase in the number of grade changes is important. We are looking closely at what this tells us about marking quality as well as about the EAR process itself.”

Among the other focuses will be the increasing use of online marking. The three main awarding bodies make extensive use of online systems, with Pearson Edexcel marking 88 per cent of its summer 2012 scripts online. OCR marked 79 per cent this way and AQA 

58 per cent. The report states: “We know that online systems can introduce new sources of clerical errors.”

Chief regulator Glenys Stacey added: “We believe the increased use of on-screen marking is a positive thing, as it allows for more frequent and flexible monitoring of examiners, and reduces the logistical risks. 

“We are aware though, that this does bring with it risks of new administration problems, which must be managed properly.”

Ofqual will also investigate the use of mark schemes as well as the benefits and drawbacks of double-marking, where two examiners independently mark responses, and of item-level marking, where scripts are split into individual questions which are marked by different examiners.

Ms Stacey added: “The biggest factor influencing the reliability of marking is the design of the assessment itself – the style and quality of the questions and the quality of the accompanying mark schemes. These are matters we intend to improve as qualifications are reformed.”

The report also focuses on the quality of the more than 51,000 examiners who mark the scripts. It finds almost all have “considerable teaching experience and subject knowledge”, with two thirds having over 15 years’ teaching experience.

The second report will come in August, focusing on arrangements for challenging marks and grades, while a third report will be published in the autumn.


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