Examiners ‘failing to spot A* answers’, say schools

The Telegraph, 28/09/14, top private schools complain over the state of marking in GCSEs and A-levels amid warnings examiners are struggling to understand essays written by bright pupils. HMC members Richard Harman, Chairman of HMC and Headmaster of Uppingham School, Tim Hands, Vice Chairman of HMC and Master of Magdalen College School and Fiona Boulton, Head of Guildford High School are quoted. HMC member schools, Brighton College, Highgate School and Magdalen College School are mentioned.

Bright pupils from leading private schools are being penalised in exams because inexperienced markers cannot recognise “A* material”, according to headmasters.

Independent schools are making a record number of appeals against grades awarded in GCSEs and A-levels this year because of concerns over “serious shortcomings” in the marking process, it emerged.

It is believed the total number of re-marks demanded by schools will top 310,000 for the first amid mounting anger over exam standards, particularly in relation to more “subjective” essay-based disciplines such as English, English literature and history.

The issue will become a flashpoint at this week’s annual meeting of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents 260 top independent schools.

One head told how examiners effectively penalised the brightest students who moved “beyond the mark scheme” to show genuine flair.

The Telegraph has been told how:

• An AS-level politics student from Guildford High School achieved the equivalent of an E grade even though her essay was deemed so good that it was quoted in an examiners’ report as an example of outstanding work. The paper was re-marked as a B and – in a largely unprecedented step – graded a third time by the chief examiner to gain an A;

• A top school in the south-east saw its proportion of A*/A grades in English literature drop from 98 per cent two years ago to just 69 per cent this summer despite having the same teaching, similar pupil cohort and exam board. Fourteen pupils have had their papers remarked so far and each one increased by a grade, including 12 going from A to A*;

• Brighton College has seen the total number of GCSEs graded A* in all subjects jump from 44.5 to 48.5 per cent after re-marks, including more than 200 pupils who had English and religious studies papers graded again. One pupil went from a U to an A in A-level history after being re-marked;

• Highgate School is demanding re-marks in a series of English literature International GCSE papers after seeing the proportion of A*s awarded to pupils drop from 87 to 55 per cent in just a year. In music, one pupil gained just 37 out of 80 marks in an exam – only to be given 80 out of 80 when the test was re-marked;

• Magdalen College School, Oxford, saw 50.5 per cent of pupils gain A* in English language GCSEs, but the number leaped to almost 57.5 per cent after re-marks were added;

• Outside the private sector, Bexleyheath Academy in Kent queried two English language GCSE results papers where pupils received "zero", only to see them jump to 73 and 86 after being re-marked.

Headmasters are now demanding a wholesale change to the examinations system, including greater incentives for experienced teachers to mark test papers and imporved standards of training.

Currently, examiners can be paid as little as £2 per exam script.

Richard Harman, chairman of HMC and headmaster of Uppingham, said: “There are serious shortcomings in our public exam system which the exam regulator [Ofqual] has so far shown itself unwilling or unable to address with sufficient speed and urgency.

“English, in part because of the numbers of examiners it needs, is often where these show up most.”

Fiona Boulton, headmistress of Guildford High, said some examiners did not “recognise top-quality work”, penalising the brightest pupils.

“Some staff, through no fault of their own, don’t often come across A* material and therefore don’t recognise it when they see it,” she said. “There’s limited training and it is getting worse. We don’t pay examiners enough… so the incentives to become a marker are significantly reduced.”

The total number of GCSE and A-level papers re-marked in 2013 stood at 304,400, up from 167,400 four years earlier. It is thought numbers will far exceed 310,000 this summer.

Tim Hands, the master of Magdalen College School, added: “It's too easy for adults paid to reward accuracy to forget the heartache they inflict on young people by inaccuracy unnecessarily and annually delivered. That applies to all young people, whatever their background, and whatever their schooling.”

Glenys Stacey, chief regulator of Ofqual, said exam boards would be required to publish data from next year showing how many errors were down to individual markers or wider "system" problems.

"Incorrect marking can have a significant impact on somebody’s educational or career path, even when a wrong mark is later corrected," she said. "Yet overall, the system of marking works well. We carried out a major piece of research earlier this year into the quality of marking that demonstrated this fact."

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