Exam marks changed again – does something need to be done?

So let’s see. You work hard, you get your revision done, you make sure that everything is perfect going into the exam.  When you sit the exam, you don’t let the pressure get to you and you manage everything perfectly.

ExamsYou’ve done all you can, haven’t you?  All that has to be done is for it to be marked, a mere formality that confirms your effort and work and will determine whatever happens next in your life.

Of course, the big assumption here is that the bits outside of your control are taken care of.  Naturally, you’ll assume that markers will be competent, computer systems will be working correctly… and of course, the marks get delivered on time.

Evidently, it would appear something is going wrong on even the most basic level as news emerged recently that the exam board OCR announced that several hundred marks have had to be changed, resulting in many regrades.

The breakdown of the papers involved looks like this:

  • 98 GCSE papers
  • 285 AS Level papers
  • 50 A Level papers

This isn’t the first time that OCR has been caught napping – in July 2012, up to 250 students had overall grades changed on papers because markers couldn’t add up totals correctly.  One month before that, Maths A Level papers had to be scrapped by Edexcel after one of the papers ended up in a batch bound for Egypt.

Perhaps one of the more troubling things about this is the fact that we aren’t seeing computer faults or something out of the ordinary.  Something like this wouldn’t be ideal but at least we wouldn’t be reading news reports sighing and tutting to ourselves because, when it comes down to it, the people marking are just not doing it properly.

I mean, is it really that hard to add up the marks you’ve given?  I’m not talking about the marks here, I’m just talking about the process of counting.  Exam papers often carry sizeable margins to help examiners note where marks have been awarded in the process of examining the paper.

Really, there should be no excuse for managing to be unable to add these up – especially when you could easily pull out a calculator.

The nature of the issues this time are not precise, but a board statement said it was “human and process errors.”  To me, that sounds like someone made some mistakes and no-one picked up on it until it was too late.

Schools are going to contacted if any of their students were affected by the recount.  However, for those papers that were affected at the higher end of the educational ladder, we still aren’t sure if these blunders have affected a student’s prospects of getting into university.  Imagine if this had happened around the time of the university fee changes – chances are there’d be one unlucky student paying thousands of pounds more, simply thanks to a marking calamity.

Ultimately, we’ll just have to wait and see what the damage is with this.  More fortunately, OCR has said that it only affects 0.03% of results.  It also appears that the errors are rather concentrated – the majority affected History and English papers, mainly around a few small modules.

However, despite the isolated nature of the problem, it shouldn’t really serve as much of an excuse or as a comfort to the students who have lost out on something.  The fact that the errors occurred in English too – it’s a core subject that everyone takes.

The OCR board have said that the measures that are now in place will solve everything and that sounds like great news.  The problem there is that this is exactly the same thing that they promised us back in 2012, that measures were in place to make sure this kind of thing wouldn’t happen again.  Clearly something didn’t work and the system doesn’t work to this day.  With students having their marks changed and results altered, it’s difficult to see how effective such measures really were.

Exam papers are traditionally scanned and then marked on a computer screen by markers who are hired by the exam board in question.  This presents another issue, not because of what’s done now, but rather that it’s extremely difficult to imagine another solution to the problem that would work to make sure that things are marked correctly… I mean, we could give teachers the actual papers but then we get all sorts of logistic issues – something I can imagine the exam board managing to get it wrong or making it an expensive and drawn-out process somehow.

Do we have it marked a second time by someone else to confirm the given mark?  You must be joking, the wait is long enough as it is, without every paper in the country being looked at twice, that would be impractical and affect students even more.  Strangely, some modular modern foreign language courses in schools use this method for controlling the quality of the marking, but there are several key differences, chief among which is the sad notion that a small number choose languages in schools.

This is something that has to change.  It seems like we’re always hearing about the problems with examinations and marking… Now it appears that it’s not technical or logistical, but rather the weak link in the system is that of the people who mark the papers.

This is troubling for parents, students, employers, teachers and even schools.  The solution, however, does appear to be a little tough to find, since the alternatives could be easily considered even trickier.

Don’t try and solve a problem by risking creating several others.

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