Be careful what you wish for…

As Edexcel announces it will upload all of its marked A-level exam scripts, Hilary Moriarty asks, are we about to see A grades rise even further?

OK, so first you have to know that I am writing this on A-level results day, and whatever I intended to write has just been trumped by the newspapers reporting, not the pass marks, and not the vagaries of results over time, but something I believe to be even more important: Edexcel is today uploading all of its marked A-level exam scripts, and will offer free access to the exam scripts so teachers can judge whether a pupil or the examiner was at fault before they go through the process of challenging the grade awarded.

Now that’s a revolution. That’s the walls of Jericho coming down, and I feel a little like Joshua, because once upon a time I took up my pen and scribbled an attack on the massive structure of examination boards – and lo! See how the walls have crumbled!

I cannot say this is exactly what I had in mind when I went into print – The Times and The Guardian in the late 1990s – to ask that candidates should have access to their own papers if they felt their received grade was wrong. As a Head of English and Head of Sixth Form I had dealt with disappointed girls with grades they couldn’t understand – “But I was really good on the Shakespeare paper!” – and if we challenged the grade, all too often the exam board merely confirmed their first decision.

And why wouldn’t they? Who could argue with them, in their ivory tower, loftily handing down decisions which would change the recipients’ lives? And getting a reputation for changing their minds was never going to be a useful marketing development. I suspected that appeals got very short shrift from the Boards, with more to gain by holding firm, and little to gain by admitting error.

There were times when a pupil was convinced she had done better than the grade given but I had my doubts – was it likely that a student who had pottered through Sixth Form in a lackadaisical fashion, with lowish grades for homework assignments completed in a week, not in 45 minutes under exam conditions, was it likely that the D grade was wrong and she was actually going to get an A in a re-mark? Maybe not. Next question: would you be the one to tell her that when she’s convinced she was inspired on the day and is determined to demand a re-mark? Of course not.

But if I could see her actual paper, if she and I could go through it line by line and see where marks had been won or lost – now you’re talking. And – secondarily, but also importantly – if I could see where a candidate had gone wrong, I would be so much better equipped to teach next year’s students because I’d seen the examiner’s response to a student’s work.

“If A grades go through the roof next year, don’t be surprised.” 

Looking back, I realise I had done a lot to try to get inside an examiner’s head.

The best possible INSET for anyone teaching English Language and Literature was then (and may still be) to become an examiner, but it’s a brutal baptism, especially if you are working full time. I marked A-level English Lit several times, O-level Eng Lit, CSE Eng Lang, and GCSE Eng Lit, all of them – obviously – taking over my life for about three weeks. OK on maternity leave, hell on earth when back in school and the papers waited for my return and occupied every night till the small hours. By then, how fair or accurate was my work, and how much oversight of my piles of lumpen paper was possible? I was completely conscientious, but also (probably) completely exhausted.

I understand that these days the marking process is much more ‘professional’ in the sense of scripts being scanned and marked in daylight, but the requests for re-marks have gone through the roof. In 2017, there were 369,215 challenges to grades given (The Times, 16 August 2018). Last year’s pilot, offering teachers access to marked papers, resulted in 440,000 scripts being downloaded and viewed by teachers. Never mind the particular student whose grade you may be querying, I am sure that the teaching of the next cohort of students for the next year and the next examinations will have improved.

The examiner is no longer a mysterious figure in the shadows, often moonlighting from the day job to eke out a stretched salary.  This is what a student wrote, this is what the examiner thought, this is the mark he gave – now, how do we help our students to better match what the examiner on this syllabus with this exam board, wants?

Independent schools have spent years working for improvements in the standard of marking. The announcement that one of the Boards will upload all of its marked A-level scripts today, results day, is a tribute to their efforts, with a nod to the technology which has made it possible – you can just imagine the flounce, ‘Upload the lot!’ which is only possible because the process is well served by computers.

At the time I was speaking up for access to the papers, it was already happening in – if I remember correctly – Ireland and Australia. They were leading the way, and offering the kind of example which British exam boards could easily follow. But the exam boards here were horrified at the very idea. When I was invited to discuss the issue on Newsnight, a top man in the exam business came to defend their position. Newsnight! When the invitation – OK, the phone call – came, I was in a car on the Severn Bridge, returning to Wales from a London trip. Could I come back for the programme? What do you think?

“The marking process is much more ‘professional’, but the requests for re-marks have gone through the roof.”

So I returned, and we were told to expect a good 10 minutes of airtime. And then, the news emphasis for the day changed in a heartbeat: the Monica Lewinsky story broke, Clinton admitted guilt, my Exam Board colleague and I turned into small fry.

“Give back the papers!”

“No! It would be the end of civilisation as we know it… you’ll be sorry!”

Thank you and goodnight.

But the gauntlet was down, the natural justice of allowing students sight of their completed papers – their papers, after all – was recognised and the walls were breached. Ironically, a few years later when my own son was awarded a B in one of his A-levels after two years of nothing less than A grades, he asked for a review. And guess what?

The exam board admitted they had lost one of his papers, but would now accept his mock paper if his school still had it. The school still had the paper, done in exam conditions back in January. He got his A.

Today’s news of Edexcel uploading all of its marked A-level exam scripts is billed as a move to help cut the number of schools challenging their pupils’ grades. I am sure it will work –  fewer challenges, but probably a lot of conversations about what examiners really, really want. This is precious information, this is INSET.

If A grades go through the roof next year, don’t be surprised.

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of the Boarding Schools Association. 

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