Even Homer nods

Bust of HomerSo how can Tom – how can any A level or GCSE student – be sure that he will be awarded the same marks no matter which examiner marks his paper?

The process to ensure that this happens is known as standardisation. It’s part of a quality control system that is used with baked beans as well as with exam marks.

I’ll describe what happens with the exam papers that I mark – A Level English papers.

First, there must be recognition of the fact that different examiners, without any controls in place, are very likely to give different marks. And even with a mark scheme in front of them, there can still be discrepancies. When a team of examiners first sits down to mark a specimen paper together, their marks for a question carrying 25 marks may vary by as much as 4 marks, equivalent to 20% – the difference between an A and a C grade! Clearly this has to be corrected quickly, clearly and permanently.

This is how it happens. All stems from the Principal Examiner who is usually a teacher and examiner of some experience and ability. Because he or she has set the exam paper and the marking scheme to go with it, we can be confident that their marks can be trusted.

But even the Principal Examiner is human, so in case Homer nods, there is also a team of Senior Examiners who contribute their own thoughts to the marks awarded to the sample papers.

When the senior team has reached a consensus, the sample papers with the allocated marks are disseminated down to the whole team of examiners for the paper. They use the mark scheme to award marks blind and then these marks are compared to the model marks. This sometimes involves paying closer attention to particular features mentioned in the mark scheme (such as the use of clear evidence, thoughtful explanations, technical accuracy) and adjusting marks upwards or downwards. Some examiners have to mark several papers, perhaps more than one batch, before their marks are close enough to the standard. Only then are they allowed to continue.

Even then it’s recognized that while examiners may keep to the standard at the beginning, he or she may drift away from the standard later in the marking period. To counteract this tendency, checks are carried out later and marks adjusted upwards or downwards to keep them to the standard. It’s rather like the role of the cox with a rowing crew.

So, when the fatal envelope arrives on the breakfast table towards the end of August, Tom can be pretty sure that the mark inside will be what he deserves. Of course things can go wrong and on rare occasions they do. A few black beans occasionally get in with the good ones.

But the exam board knows that too and that is when the appeals procedure comes into play.

But more about that later …

David McGrath

Oxford Open Learning Tutor

See more by

Stay Connected