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Coming from the United States, it has always struck me as curious and archaic that students have to wait until August to receive their examination results. For decades, this cumbersome, expensive, and frustrating process of examination marking has been accepted without challenge.

The proposition that has always been accepted is that the use of external examiners with multiple moderations produce the most accurate and equitable results – but where is the evidence for this? Anecdotal evidence over the years suggests there are great discrepancies, and the examination boards can be monolithic in their resistance to challenges from schools.

The worst result of the current system is that students spend the summer not knowing until mid-August where they will be, or what they will be doing, in September. Often their summer work, travels or holidays are interrupted with last-minute arrangements and rushed important decisions. This annual mad scramble for places and accommodation, and associated stress – for students, schools and university staff – could all be avoided.

I would like to offer the following propositions for discussion:

1. There is no compelling reason why students should not have their results before the end of the summer term. (Mid-July).

2. Fresh research is needed to demonstrate that the present system justifies the cost and time.

3. Alternative systems from around the world should be evaluated by people outside the educational establishment.

4. Rigorous and testable reasons should be given for maintaining the status quo.

The starting point for this proposal is that other countries are able to filter students for advanced education and careers using faster and less expensive processes.

The second aspect of the proposition is that the final results in England and Wales are so massaged as to negate any rigour, or other positive effects, thought to be in the process.

I would advocate the evaluation of the current system to be conducted by people from outside the educational establishment because they will have fewer vested interests and prejudices.

The failure of the current system was brought home to me when GCSE work for students, that had received identical scores, had been moderated variously to Bs, Cs and Ds. It made no difference whether work had been submitted for moderation: identical raw scores were allocated three different grades.

The effect on those students’ lives is incalculable.

Letters and telephone calls to the board were met with a wall of unavailability, followed by an impenetrable cloud of obfuscation, and, eventually, an incomprehensible statistical statement, read to me by a board official who was unable explain what it meant. Ultimately, the board played its Doomsday card: “We are sorry, but the time for raising objections has passed.” At that point, I did the only thing I could, and changed examination boards.

Going beyond anecdote to informative data

The fact remains that no matter what the raw scores of students, they will be made to comply with a bell curve. The universities will have decided, months before, how many places on each course there will be, and, regardless of pass-rates, that is what will be available.
So, what might be a better system?
Without evidence to support the case that internal blind marking is inferior to external marking, it is not possible to construct a new model.

What needs to be appreciated is that any scheme only needs to create a relatively accurate ranking of results. The numbers applied don’t matter; they will be generated by the board, and government statisticians who will grind out the final grades.

There would be many consequences of any change. Probably more controversial than the introduction of internal marking would be the discontinuation of paying teachers to mark exam papers. Given that exam marking occupies time usually spent in lesson preparation and marking for classes but have ceased, it’s not a compelling argument, though I am sympathetic to teachers who try to supplement their inadequate incomes.

Another strong objection would probably be that today’s examiners have undergone training in mark allocation and grade differentiation. There are two responses to that: first, if every GCSE and A level teacher doesn’t know this already, they shouldn’t be teaching. Secondly, training teachers to be better at doing this can be done using webinars and other online applications. This would be time and cost effective, and probably should be done now.

The cost of examinations would be dramatically reduced, releasing money for more productive educational activities.
There will be other consequences. The point is that it is time for a fresh, informed discussion. For too long, the system has been accepted without question. Indeed, it is curious that, given the never-ending changes in education over the past six decades, no one has proposed looking at the clunky manner of marking and its timing.
Does the, “If it ain’t broke,” axiom apply here? It may do; I doubt it, but we won’t know until there is some comparative data, and a robust debate.


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