Exam reforms doomed unless assessment system changes, say heads


Poor quality and inconsistent marking of GCSE and A level examinations is endemic, according to a scathing report from independent school heads.

They say that while reforms to GCSEs and A levels are needed, “we characterise these plans as houses that would be built on the sand of a deteriorating national industry of public examinations”. Their introduction would be meaningless unless accompanied by changes to the way children are examined and assessed, they argue.

The study, from HMC, the organisation representing headteachers in independent schools, found deep-rooted problems with quality and consistency of marking and how the appeals process operates. The report has been sent to ministers.

In all, it lists seven serious problems with exams grouped under three headings: unsatisfactory awarding of grades, poor quality marking, and redress and appeals. It finds long-standing year-on-year variations in grades awarded in the same subjects, and unexplained boundary changes to previously stable subjects. 

There are also “significant and widespread variations” between awarding bodies in the numbers of candidates achieving top grades, and “unexplained variations” between some key subjects in the number of top grades at A level.

Crucially, it reports “persistent and widespread incompetence in marking” and in one specific examination, erratic and inconsistent marking. There are also “significant doubts” about the accuracy and fairness of the appeals process.

Christopher Ray, high master of Manchester Grammar School and chairman of HMC, said: “The state of the examinations industry is truly shocking and is clearly no longer fit-for-purpose. The problems go far deeper than this year’s disastrous mishandling of the English language GCSE grades.”

The report blamed some of the problems on a “culture of secrecy” among the exam boards and a “lack of focus” by Ofqual, the regulator.  Independent schools had been abandoning GCSEs and A levels in droves as a result of these problems, in favour of qualifications such as the IGCSE and IB.

The Association of School and College Leaders endorsed the study. Brian Lightman, its general secretary, said: “This is not about reforming exams at 16 but about getting the basics right. Marking and grading are fundamental to any exam system and these issues need to be addressed or problems like the ones we have seen this summer are likely continue.

“We strongly hope that Ofqual and the government will work together with teachers and leaders in all sectors, who really understand where the problems are, to make sure that these issues are investigated properly.”

An Ofqual spokesperson said that the regulator was looking closely at the quality of marking in the exam system. 

They added: “Exam boards have clear arrangements for training and monitoring markers. We want to make sure that all of these processes work as well as they can.”


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