Let’s trust teachers on assessment

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford
Fantastic article Bernard, and couldn't agree more. Far more useful to have national proficiency ...

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The exam marking system is creaking, but what are the solutions? Dr Bernard Trafford proposes a radical option

It is that time of year. The last few re-mark requests are in and, while we await the outcome, we start sharpening our pencils for the appeal letters.

I’m not a fanatical complainer, re-marker or appealer. But I do believe, when things are wrong, we should push to get them put right. We all know the system’s creaking. Exam boards are struggling to find competent markers. A few years back I spotted an exam board advert for markers – on the back of a bus. It seemed a curious way to look for the highly qualified and experienced professionals required to do a proper job.

Marking has changed over the years, not necessarily for the better. In the old days (I mean five years ago), if you received a strange set of results in, say, GCSE English language you might have been able to identify a rogue marker. Nowadays marking is done online, and no one examiner sees a whole paper. As a result, they have no opportunity to judge the overall quality of the candidate.

“A good thing, too,” you may say, “otherwise an examiner might tweak the marks to give the overall result they think the candidate deserves, instead of judging each answer on its merit.” Hmm. I’m not sure that was such a bad thing.

Moreover, if we had hoped that we could reduce inconsistencies and errors by having a single examiner marking all the thousands of answers to question 7b, instead of floundering through whole papers, we’re doomed to disappointment. The number of re-marks and complaints is increasing exponentially year-on-year: and dodgy examiners are hidden from view.

“Enough!” we cry. Something must be done. Her majesty’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, whose name seems to crop up in all the educational columns I write nowadays, is calling for a single exam board for each subject. The rationale? Less to do with marking, more to do with a suspicion that competition between boards leads to dumbing-down, because it’s in a board’s interest to make its exam easier than those of its competitors so that more schools choose its brand.

That view is in marked contrast to the Tory dogma that competition invariably pushes standards up and prices down. I don’t claim to understand the odder aspects of exam board behaviour, but I’d never accuse them of trying to attract custom by making an A* (or a Grade 9) easier to get.

The notion of giving individual boards a monopoly in each subject fills me with horror: the more radical solution of creating a single gigantic national mega-board still more so. It’s argued that, if only one board runs English, for example, then it can attract all the best markers. But it won’t address the root of the problem: there aren’t enough examiners. The system is so massive, sprawling and unmanageable that, well, we just can’t manage it. Creating an examinations leviathan will only exacerbate the situation.

“No, no, no!” shriek the single-board proponents. Quality would be ensured by a statutorily created body to enforce rigorous standards. And statutory protection would prevent politicians from interfering. What grounds does previous experience of regulators or government give for believing that?

No strategy for rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic will alter the fact that children are sitting too many exams, all externally marked: there will never be enough examiners. Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

There is a solution: to return to more internal assessment, trusting teachers and schools, and making children sit fewer exams. That raises another question: can we trust teachers? With schools under constant pressure to hit particular targets, won’t they be tempted to fiddle those results?

That is the million-dollar-question. To remove that temptation we would have to reduce pressure on schools: government and Ofsted would have to back off. That’s the truly radical solution: trust schools and teachers. Don’t hold your breath.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him on Twitter @bernardtrafford

Fantastic article Bernard, and couldn't agree more. Far more useful to have national proficiency tests in English and maths at 16 (18?), then allow teachers to make informed judgements, through rigorous assessment and testing, over time. In this way, teachers could really teach their own curricula (to national standards). Could also mean that students could potentially get a broader curriculum; if they could do one module of history, one module of geography; in an American style points system perhaps?
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